Friday, January 14, 2011

Tweet nothings?

About a fortnight ago, I decided that a post reflecting on the explosion of Twitter and what it means for blogging and for football would be topical - and, as if to prove my point, there seems to have been at least one new Twitter-and-football-related story in the news every day since.

For footballers, Twitter performs a dual function: both a social networking site by which they communicate and banter with personal friends (just as it is for millions of "ordinary" people), but also as a means of connecting with and delivering concise messages to supporters. In a chapter on athletes' use of social media which appears in a forthcoming book, Sports Media, US-based authors Jimmy Sanderson and Jeffrey W. Kassing observe that both blogs and Twitter "afford athletes more control over the release of sports news while also increasing their self-presentation management". And managing their self-presentation is no doubt key for those who are very often in possession of sizeable egos. The number of followers they have must seem like a tangible measure (and validation) of their popularity.

For the fans who follow them, the appeal is even more obvious. Stalking is effectively legitimised, as they're actually invited to snoop on the players' personal exchanges with their consent. What always used to be private is now increasingly - and knowingly - performed in public. Moreover, Twitter makes fans feel as though they have an intimate connection with and access to the players - the middleman, the media (TV, newspapers and, yes, blogs too), having been dispensed with. Footballers can speak their minds directly, while fans can tweet their favourite player a question, it'll show up on his feed and they might even get a reply. This illustrates what Sanderson and Kassing refer to as the "transformative" and "integrative" effects of social media - they transform the role of the mainstream media, sidelining them and shrinking their significance, and simultaneously draw the fan, conventionally a passive consumer, into a closer, more active and participatory relationship with the object of their interest.

Of course, there's always a danger of doing a Guardian, getting carried away and overstating the importance of social media. After all, let's examine the revelations we've gleaned from following the various Twitter aficionados in the Newcastle team over the last month, revelations which in truth hardly merit the name. Rocky has repeatedly sought to assure concerned fans about his fitness and continued future at the club, while Spidermag's revealed (in both Spanish and English) that he seems to spend most of his time twiddling his thumbs waiting for matchdays to come around. Danny Simpson gave us an insight into outfits and goings-on at the players' Christmas party, though I'm not convinced we really wanted to know that Rocky wore a Spongebob Squarepants sweatshirt, did we? As for Nile Ranger, "Feelin like some hot wingsssss!" is about as erudite and informative as his tweets get, but that's still better than Wayne Routledge, who's a master of untelligible gibberish that I assume must be what passes for Yoof-Speak these days.

But significant news has been broken on a Newcastle player's Twitter page at least once, when Jose Enrique announced he'd be sitting out the trip to Spurs with an injury. The Spaniard has since suspended his account, the understanding being that he was asked to do so by the club as a result - though not before encouraging everyone to befriend him on Facebook instead...

Sanderson and Kassing note that social media have served to deprive sports organisations of "their ability to tightly regulate the public release of information" and this is evidently an increasing source of frustration and anxiety to clubs. Speaking after it emerged that Tuncay was touting himself around to prospective new employers on Facebook, Stoke manager Tony Pulis ruled out a ban on social media as unenforceable but complained resignedly: "It's very, very difficult at times, but boys will be boys". Our reaction to Enrique's tweet seems to suggest a more authoritarian and interventionist policy, prompted by the old adage that loose lips sink ships (not that we were exactly a watertight vessel prior to the advent of social media, though - far from it). And Enrique isn't alone - Man Utd midfielder Tom Cleverley, currently on loan at Wigan, recently announced he'd been advised to close his account by both his club and his agent.

Perhaps what clubs fear the most about Twitter is the possibility of unguarded outbursts committed to the internet in the heat of the moment - not least because they know that there's no chance of pleading misrepresentation by the media afterwards. Top footballers are given extensive media training on precisely the "self-presentation management" to which Sanderson and Kassing refer - but sitting at home in front of a computer must feel very different to having flashbulbs and microphones thrust into your face. In addition to social media being transformative and integrative, Sanderson and Kassing also refer to them as having potentially "adversarial" effects and, while we at Newcastle are (as far as I'm aware) yet to experience any such instances, this is the main reason why Twitter has been making the back page headlines.

Let's look at just the past few days. In the wake of Liverpool's FA Cup defeat to Man Utd, during which referee Howard Webb awarded a first-minute penalty to the Red Devils and Scouse captain Steven Gerrard was sent off, a disgruntled Ryan Babel linked to a mocked-up picture of Webb in a Man Utd shirt, for which the FA have charged him with improper conduct. His Anfield team-mate Glen Johnson, meanwhile, took furious exception to criticism from former Arsenal midfielder and Sky Sports pundit Paul Merson on Soccer Saturday, telling his Twitter followers: "Comments from alcoholic drug abusers are not really gonna upset me and who is Paul Merson to judge players, he was average at the best of times. The only reason he's on that show is coz he gambled all his money away. The clown!".

So much for conflict between players and officials and between players and the media - what about between players themselves? Look no further than the fallout of Blackburn's FA Cup victory over QPR, during which the Championship leaders' Jamie Mackie suffered a broken leg. Afterwards, no fewer than three QPR players - former Toon reserve Bradley Orr, Paddy Kenny and Mackie himself - took to Twitter to echo the sentiments of their manager Colin Wanker about Diouf's comments to the prostrate striker, labelling him a "shit" and a "repulsive human being" amongst other things.

And just to complete the set with conflict between players and supporters, we have the case of Marvin Morgan. Booed by his own team's fans during a defeat by struggling Hereford, the Aldershot striker came up with the charming Twitter riposte "I hope you all die!" The reward for his outburst was a maximum club fine of two weeks' wages and a place on the transfer list, and he's now been shipped out to Dagenham & Redbridge on loan until the end of the season. Ironic, really, that something that does in many ways bring the two parties - footballers and fans - closer together should have actually opened up an unbridgeable rift.

And that isn't the only irony. Sanderson and Kassing touch on the fact that mainstream media are now having to treat blogs and Twitter as serious sources of news, but don't acknowledge that they thrive on precisely the sort of tales of feuding and dysfunction that social media regularly throw up. On the one hand, then, social media appear to be eroding the importance and influence of their mainstream counterparts - but on the other, they're actually serving up on a plate exactly what the big boys want. The further irony is that the more the mainstream media report on Twitter indiscretions, the likelier clubs are to feel that decisive action is necessary and to put draconian social media policies or outright bans in place - so they could be indirectly responsible for depriving themselves of some of the stories they crave.

Of course, as Sanderson and Kassing's chapter demonstrates, illustrated as it is by examples drawn from baseball, basketball and American football, the problems social media pose to sporting organisations are far from particular to football. Cricket's powers-that-be are already well versed in dealing with players choosing to vent their personal frustrations and vendettas on Twitter rather than in private - Kevin Pietersen, Dmitri Mascarenhas and Azeem Rafiq have all landed themselves in hot water. What's clear, though, is that it's an issue the football authorities and football clubs need to acknowledge - and will, in all likelihood, confront. For our part, we'll keep on trawling through the results of Nile Ranger's two brain cells rubbing together in the hope of turning up something interesting, but how long before all our players' accounts start falling silent?

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Phew. That was a very long-winded way of introducing the fact that Black & White & Read All Over is now on Twitter. You can follow us here.

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Anonymous BristolAlbion said...

Hi there.

Baggies fan here. Great article. Having initially been impressed by the BBC Sport website blog on the same subject, I now realise where the BBC plagarist might have lifted some of his ideas from!

Having complete contempt for the average sad git who utilises Twitter (Chicken, 2 for £5 at Morrisons? - really? how interesting), the thought of intellectually vacuous members of the public mixing it with footballers is quite frightening. However, I do now find myself tempted, if only to see which Albion players can rival your Nile for the 'couple of chicken wings short of a full picnic' award. My money is on James Morrison ....


8:02 pm  
Blogger Ben said...

Thanks! Wasn't implying plagiarism BTW - I actually think it's inevitable that Twitter would be a hot topic given the number of (non-)stories it's been implicated in recently. The BBC blog post certainly has its own merits, though I was a bit surprised to find that there isn't much reference to the outright nastiness that can result - Glen Johnson and Marvin Morgan being cases in point.

8:45 pm  

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