The Twitter Phenomenon

When the world's most powerful man uses a social network then we can safely surmise it's an important tool.  OK, it can be questioned if Barack Obama is more influential than your average media mogul but the rampant rise of Twitter as the most accessible outlet for instant communication is a fascinating one. And when we consider the parochial nature of Scottish football (and society), it's no wonder it has really taken off in this country.

When I first signed up for Twitter a couple of years back I was cynical.  Being in my thirties, I didn't really care all that much for social networks and had already dismissed the likes of Facebook as a domain for angst-ridden teenagers and gossiping housewives. Twitter seemed different though. It was punchier, more interactive, easier to use and it didn't take me long to get gathered up in the excitement. Did Celebrity X really just answer one of my questions? Did my local MSP just reply in minutes rather than months?

As the joint-administrator of a decade old Rangers fan website, the developing internet era has been an absorbing subject. From small isolated online communities at the start of the new millennium to large websites working together and independent supporter organisations being formed; the influence of the web has never been greater. Indeed, in the last year even the two Old Firm clubs have realised the power of social networking and both have accessible representatives taking an active part on a daily basis.

With the likes of Rangers giving Twitter debates the kind of credibility that some of the unofficial sites and forums perhaps didn't have previously, public interaction with fans has improved in a variety of ways. Add in more and more journalists and authority figures utilising the social networks as a resource, suddenly the perception of internet football fans as deranged ‘zealots’ isn’t applied as widely as it was previously. After all, how can a broadsheet journalist really stereotype if they themselves willingly gravitate to Twitter debates? Not to mention club players, managers and board directors.

The transformation of the perception of online football fans is worth examining.  After all, it was only five years ago that Gordon Strachan described radio phone-in contributors as ‘Kestrel drinking, devil dug owning’ neds. If such people were that low on the food-chain, where did that put those of us who enjoyed discussing the footballing  issues of the day in an anonymous, unaccountable fashion?

Dismissing increasingly large numbers of the online supporting demographic was never going to be a sustainable argument though. Blogging was becoming increasingly influential and the fan groups that had risen from the ever-more politically aware internet fan-bases were now quoted widely in the mainstream media. The lager-swilling uncouth bigot had now become a suit-wearing metro-sexual that could hold their own on live TV shows.

This has never been more relevant in the current issue of the day – the failings of Rangers FC.  Viral social campaigns, mass avatar ‘Twibbons’ and protest marches attended by up to ten thousand people are just some of the more obvious examples of effective lobbying we’ve seen of late. It’s easy to see where such movements begin and these crusades really are the modern day equivalent of the pitchfork and torch lynch-mob. Justice is demanded instantly and, it often seems, served on the whim of such onslaughts.

In that sense, it’s perhaps valid to ask if we’re now in danger of going in the wrong direction.  Although online communities are large and varied opinion is certainly reflected within them, is it fair to automatically conclude anything more than crude generalisations? Can a supporter’s organisation really judge all their members’ thoughts? Can the media rely on popular bloggers’ apparent inside information? Are viral social campaigns really reflective of the majority?

For example it could be argued such agitations are often catalysed by the media themselves towards their preferred outcome of that particular day. We’ve seen clumsy surveys published as scientific studies; we’ve seen politicians wearing partisan ‘Twibbons’ and we’ve seen ill-informed pseudo-journalists given hours of air-time without ever  seeing real evidence of their claims.  Where before we could have some semblance of restraint, is it now a case we have society’s gamekeeper turned poacher?

Generally speaking though, the rise of the social networks has been a valuable one. Fans are more in touch with their clubs. Citizens are more active in their communities. Awareness of the world’s challenges has never been higher. From day late printed newspapers we’ve now moved to 24 hour, second-by-second coverage of any given situation. It’s only natural football fans use such tools to offer their point of view. For the most part, despite observing the odd bit of mob-rule, such comment is reasoned and worthy. And there’s no doubt such comment can influence change.

With that conclusion in mind, Rangers fans must learn to use all media channels more effectively and must take an active part in how these networks develop. The ongoing situation facing our club means this is even more important. We simply must have our voice heard. Even better if this is in an organised fashion so it’s imperative our constituent websites,  fan organisations and club  work together to convey coherent strategies for each issue that can arise. It could be argued that we’re a bit behind on that front but we can address that.

As the old adage goes, if you can’t beat them, join them.

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