Twitter has brought fans closer to football! Really?

Wills: If you continue to be a naughty boy, they will take your Twitter account off you.

Not to sound like your drunken uncle at a family reunion, but I remember back when Twitter started to rouse a bit of interest in the UK. But just like Facebook, sports entertainment and super-sized portions, the UK trailed the US in its adoption of Twitter like a fat kid trails the pack in a cross-country race. Twitter was the next big thing out of America that everyone needed to be on. Although I was skeptical at first about the thought of becoming just another sacrificial social media lamb, I thought Twitter had potential. Although Football Rascal was one of only a handful of football sites to adopt Twitter in its early stages, there were hardly any active football fans and even less active *real* footballers – Twitter was all a bit underwhelming from a football perspective.

Oh how times change.Twitter is now flooded with verified footballers from the Blue Square South up to the Premier League. There has been a big increase in fans that use Twitter as they have found it a valuable way of stalking/following their heroes’ daily exploits. You can even connect with other fans or your favourite blogs, get instant news and information, whilst websites and clubs have even integrated Twitter into their fan experience (nb: Football Rascal’s Player Twitter aggregator was one of the first).

In a time where fans have never seemed so far from the beautiful game they fundamentally helped make beautiful – Twitter has helped to bridge an ever widening gap. As football has transitioned from sport to business, Twitter has given fans access to players and clubs that had previously been lost.

That said, I am not going to harp on about how well I feel I know certain football players just because I follow them on Twitter. I don’t. No one does unless of course you actually know the player. Twitter gives you some access, not full access, to reality. This limited access has become further diluted over time and now most players only put on Twitter what they want you to see or what is allowed within the rules issued by the FA, their club or sponsor.

We can probably thank players like Joey Barton in part, a man never adverse to a little controversy, for the restricted access players now have on Twitter. However, Barton is not alone as players have learnt the hard way that the opportunity to communicate freedom of speech is not all it is cracked up to be.

The latest addition to the controversy is Ashley Cole. When Cole joined Twitter I thought fair play. You have to admire a man that knows he is widely hated by most football/Cheryl Cole fans, but is still prepared to put himself directly in the firing line. And credit to him, he was doing well and getting involved despite taking his fair share of keyboard warrior abuse, not like some of those Michael Owen silent/sensible/boring types – Cole had a bit of banter, like it or not.

But then #BunchOfTwats-gate came along…

It is not an uncommon work conversation between colleagues that you wish you could tell your boss what you really think of them. Obviously this is something that you’re forced to suppress as you stare out the window wondering ‘what if I just said it?’ – Ashley Cole actually had the bottle to do it. Unfortunately for Cole, rather than doing it to the face of a faceless organisation, he did it on Twitter where the whole world could see it…

Surely this man wouldn't be caught out misbehaving on Twitter...

Now although many will agree with the sentiment, and many will also agree he has more than a fair point, his comment shows his ignorance and his naivety to his actions. In an age of the social media ‘troll’, people not taking responsibility for their actions and a lack of free speech, #BunchOfTwats-gate hit a raw nerve.

We are living in a time in society where punishment for online activities seems to outweigh real world actions if this past weekend is anything to go by. Cole’s tweet was a shockingly outspoken message from the inside of the closed community that exists within professional football. This is the kind of comment that spreads like wildfire and escalates quickly. I know you like your stats, so prepare to feast – Ashley Cole’s #BunchOfTwats tweet was retweeted 17,000 times in its first hour and it was favourited by over 3,000 people (since then Cole has gained around 60,000 extra followers – all PR is good PR right?).

These numbers demonstrate the influence Ashley Cole has on football fans. Many would argue that he is sending out a message that his actions were acceptable–actions that would be unacceptable in any modern day work environment.

The FA created a new set of guidelines on social media to deal with such situations. Cole is a classic example of the new zero tolerance policy being rolled out by the FA in relation to social media. They have to send out a strong message now to keep a potential problem in control. One of the FA’s main campaigns is about ‘Respect.’. Where is the respect here?

Ashley Cole ‘made the decision’ to issue a face-to-face apology to David Bernstein because his errant thumbs had been a bit naughty. But Cole tweeted what he did for a reason. It’s unlikely that the FA took a long hard look at themselves whilst listening to Ashley’s reasoning behind his feisty tweet. It was more about cleanup and cover up from both parties. Despite the outrage, the apology will probably allow Ashley Cole to reach 100 caps at some point. Although the incident burnt a pretty sizable hole in Cole’s back pocket, he wont come out of it too badly, I mean he did pick up more Twitter followers and didn’t have to shoot anyone to do it.

The affects on football could be longer lasting as it is continues to become alarmingly clear that *some* footballers and Twitter don’t mix.

Harsh fines may mean it deters other players from committing such acts via social media, but you can be pretty sure Cole won’t be the last. Such high profile incidents mean this could lead to a gagged industry becoming even more gagged. I don’t know about you, but I find the ‘fans were amazing today, thank you guys’ tweets all a little dull. I want to follow footballers for real opinions. But football is a business. When you work for a business you have to act as a professional. The same way many club directors cringe at the thought of a player going near a female, an alcoholic beverage and a VIP section at a night club, they are starting to cringe at the thought of any player using Twitter. It is becoming a hassle and a PR nightmare and that’s without addressing the affects it could have on performance.

In an environment where top-flight professional football is detached from reality with seemingly no empathy for the plight of the everyday person, clubs may decide to just ban players use of Twitter to further detach us all – it already happens at some clubs. This future will mean players only use of sites like Twitter will be under supervision via their employers account because they are not responsible enough to handle their own PR.

Ashley Cole may be a catalyst for further change, but the truth is football has already changed forever. Until players come out at the other end of their careers, you will get less and less raw opinion and more and more thanking the fans for their contribution. I say: fair play to you Ashley, it was nice to see an honest reaction in a dishonest industry.

This entry was posted in Abuse, Controversy in Football, England, Football, Football and Social Media, Player focus, Premier League, the FA, Twitter. Bookmark the permalink.
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