“The problem now is that my attention is split between the football itself and Twitter. First halves just fly by, and I think ‘I have no idea what happened in that half.’ I know who scored, I know just about who’s on top because the commentator’s told me, but I haven’t appreciated it in the way that I used to do pre-Twitter.”
That was what Adam Hurrey, writer and editor for The Athletic, told me when I interviewed him recently. It is difficult to argue that Twitter has had a number of effects on the overall football experience, particularly on British shores. In fact, it is indisputable that the network — which has now long been the go-to for fans of the game — has changed the way the majority of supporters communicate and consume football-related content. But has it fundamentally changed the way we enjoy football? Have we become so accustomed to Twitter as an integral part of the football-watching experience that it has ruined our appreciation of the game we love? As with most things, there are two sides to the tale of the tweet.
March 21 saw the 14th anniversary of the first tweet ever sent. It was a simple yet revolutionary message, posted by the site’s founder Jack Dorsey, that read: “just setting up my twttr”.
In the years that followed, hundreds, thousands and now millions of users joined and made their own “twttr” accounts. Football, inevitably, joined the party. It soon became apparent that Twitter had the potential to bridge the gap between the fan and the player, allowing a closer connection between the two entities than ever before. It was, ostensibly, a welcome addition to the football media landscape.
Twitter has seemingly become the number one site for an ever-growing collation of opinions, live commentaries, highlight reels and tactical breakdowns. It has allowed people like me a platform to voice their opinions, a vehicle with which to thrust their opinions out there for people to agree with or, if they so choose, shut them down. We’ll get on to that later.
When done right, Twitter can be utilised to the maximum. In recent times, the social media network has allowed prominent players to speak out about important social issues, while clubs have been able to expand their global audiences by keeping supporters intercontinentally in the loop. The social accounts of teams have become part of the overarching institution, with an increased investment into tangible creative presence a key part of the business model.
Elsewhere, the teams behind the accounts — or behind the screens — have taken on lives of their own, assuming their seat at the table of digital football patter (exhibit A being the genius of ‘Roma admin’). At the height of the Women’s World Cup in France last summer, FIFA posted a series of statistics to demonstrate how ‘global interest hit new highs’ approaching the tournament’s knockout phase. As the field was cut from 24 to 16, 20% of all Twitter conversation was shared by the world governing body.
There are, evidently, positives of Twitter’s takeover of our game, as football has the ability to generate online conversation, even in the midst of a pandemic. However, as identified above, at the same time there exists a growing, glaring problem facing the football-watching public; so apparent that we have failed to acknowledge its impact. Until now, perhaps.
Increased interaction between fans and the ability for anyone to be able to voice their opinions in one place should, in theory, be a good thing. “I really enjoy seeing the stream of observations coming through as a football game goes on, not necessarily because I’m sitting there waiting for the chance to tweet myself,” Hurrey says. “I’m hooked on what other people think about the football that’s going on live.”
This a sentiment most football fans would echo, which in itself presents another of the primary issues with Twitter. The pressing desire to take part in Twitter conversation — which can sometimes feel like a contractual obligation to engage rather than focusing on the game itself — has been entrenched into the core of the matchday experience.
“That’s enrichened my football experience a little bit — I’m seeing other perspectives on a game and from all the cross-section of Twitter that I follow — but the problem is, it’s also made my attention span for watching football almost completely disintegrate.
“Fifteen years ago, I would sit and watch a football match and really appreciate its ebb and flow; a team being on top and why they’re playing better, why players are performing well. I can’t do that now and it’s because of Twitter. Everything on Twitter is happening in that moment.”
We don’t truly watch games as we used to anymore. Perhaps it’s a generational thing. I am aware of my role as part of the problem, as football Twitter now feels largely dominated by a Gen-Z psyche. This is in spite of the fact that 63% of all the site’s users worldwide are aged between 35 and 65. Football Twitter has cultivated its own corner of the remote chatroom space, with games having somehow been condensed into moments. Moments into videos. Videos into gifs. To make matters worse, Twitter has engrained in us an obsession with the opinions of others.
As Hurrey says, on the face of it, interacting with other fans and sharing opinions is theoretically a positive. But, if we’re completely honest, do we really want to hear other people’s opinions, especially when it concerns our own team? When we’re totally immersed in that uniquely intense sense of nervousness associated with a big game, Twitter should be an after-thought. Quite literally, it should be the place to go for reaction once the game is finished, or before it has even begun.
With Twitter having moved into the forethoughts of football supporters, it has damaged the way football fans watch games by reducing entire matches, along with the storylines associated with them, to 10 seconds clips or more-readily digestible bite-sized chunks. Damage is arguably the best word for it — not necessarily irreversible, but no doubt detrimental to what had previously been viewed as the purist way of watching football. Highlight reels have become a craze and this, for clubs, is a good thing, as they are able to tweet videos of goals — particularly of the increasingly common ‘OTD’ (On This Day) variety — and see spikes in interaction with their following fanbase. Yet, ironically enough, those same aficionados are part of the problem Hurrey identifies, and we are all complicit in it.
Just as there are developments in tactical nuances of the game on the pitch, there has been a shift in the role of the fan off it. Essentially, social media, chiefly Twitter, has become an altogether new channel for football coverage. It is now an extension of TV broadcasts, a fusion between the experience of the match going supporter and that of the fans watching from their own homes.
There are other, more obvious, adverse side-effects of the Twitter era which, unfortunately, can be hard to ignore. Take, for example, the absurdity of polarizing opinions and the incessant culture of mockery among rival fanbases. Often, when a ‘debate’ disguised as a vitriol-fuelled argument ensues on Twitter, nobody wins.
At its best, Twitter is the home of educated, engaging football content and conversation. At its worst, however, it becomes tedious and tiresome. The lines between the two are very often blurred and football Twitter descends into an echo-chamber of opinions. When the memes flood in and the abuse rolls off the fingertips, even pundits and players can find it hard to ignore the noise.
Despite there being no benefit in doing so, you can hardly blame some of these public figures when they do react unfavourably to some of the foul abuse, which has become commonplace and one of the biggest negative aspects of the Twitter evolution. Some players simply don’t see the point in putting a target on their back for varying degrees of ‘nonsense’, but interestingly these are in the minority as, presumably, a lot of players view reward as outweighing risk.
With no football to watch, there is precious little else on football Twitter at the moment than nostalgic recollections of what happened ‘on this day’ in bygone years. Maybe, once it returns, we will have a heightened appreciation for the actual live spectacle, rather than for what other people are thinking. Maybe we will pay more attention to the game given how much we have all missed it during this time of crisis. Maybe we’ll appreciate the complexities of a game of football beyond footage of the outstanding goal of its hour and a half duration.
If Twitter hasn’t already permanently damaged the way we enjoy football, then this break is likely to have helped with the problem. We’ll have to wait and see just how much.