SOCIAL media has revolutionised the way footballers interact with the general public but, in making itself more accessible to fans, has the sport got lost trying to protect itself from a malaise of name-calling, self-indulgence and self-sensationalism?
And has it affected the performance of the stars caught up in it?
Tomorrow, Twitter turns eight years old. In less than half the time Arsene Wenger has been in charge of Arsenal the micro-blogging site has completely changed the way supporters consume information, relay opinions and generally bicker amongst themselves, with opposing fans and hyper-sensitive players.
No longer is the media the font of all knowledge. Broadcasters and broadsheets, chat shows and tabloids all use the 140-characters-or-less musings of the sport’s leading lights to line their inner pages and empty minutes. For wide-eyed enthusiasts and cold-hearted trolls, Twitter is a wonderful tool; a free pass, albeit momentarily, into the world of a multi-millionaire footballer.
In a digital age, social networking sites offer the chance to interact one-on-one with football’s super-humans, but the direct access that Twitter - and other social networking sites - create can corrupt as much as it can inspire. It can involve players in conversations they needn’t have previously had, in some cases it can become so addictive that their concentration spans are affected and their mental well-being adversely influenced.
Indeed, a poll published by Kick It Out on Tuesday revealed that 91 per cent of footballers surveyed feel social media has led to an increase in them receiving discriminatory abuse and that percentage therefore feel it needs to be better policed.
Yet the concerns most within football seem to have revolve around defending its members from the consequences their words can have on other people, rather than themselves.
Swindon Town’s squad are as heavily involved in social networking as any other. The majority of the Robins’ first team boast their own Twitter profile, many have Instagram accounts and, as such, the club has a policy its players have to abide by.
Under new ownership, Town are still in the process of formally detailing how, what and when its players can tweet, but manager Mark Cooper told the Advertiser the basics.
“They’re not allowed to discuss what’s going on at the club, really,” he said. “If they’re tweeting that they’re going out with their girlfriend that’s fine but if they’re tweeting they’re doing something to do with Swindon that’s not allowed.”
The Professional Footballers’ Association outline a common-sense approach.
“Issues relating to football are often of interest to the public. It is important therefore to recognise that everything you say may be obtained and published by the media and may be misreported or misinterpreted, even if you had intended the content to be uncontroversial,” their guidelines, delivered to players, read.
The Football Association take a similar stance, again focusing on players’ propensities to get themselves in trouble on social media by publishing opinions and information they really shouldn’t.
“Participants should be aware that comments made on such sites may be considered public comment, and that further to FA Rule E3, any comments which are deemed improper, bring the game into disrepute, or are threatening, abusive, indecent or insulting may lead to disciplinary action,” the FA’s guidelines state.
“Comments which are personal in nature or could be construed as offensive, use foul language or contain direct or indirect threats aimed at other participants are likely to be considered improper.”
Premier League clubs adopt these tactics, too. Former Advertiser chief sports writer Anthony Marshall now works in the Newcastle United media department. The club issue their own guidelines to the players at the start of each season and the squad attends a social media presentation to boot.
“In my opinion, our approach is quite laid back,” said Marshall. “Apart from the guidelines, the players are pretty much left to their own devices on Twitter and only if and when they fall out of line do we pick them up on it.
“We try to treat them like adults in the belief that they will, in turn, act responsibly. And it generally seems to work, obviously with the odd exception.
“We have had very few problems and the players who currently use it either avoid talking about football altogether, or simply put a message out to fans after the game.”
But are all three institutions missing the point?
The media are bound to latch onto a story someone else has already published, it’s a common practise.
When something is in the public domain it is considered fair game.
What’s often neglected – away from the controversy of yet another irrelevant and totally unnecessary Twitter spat– is how a constant online presence can affect footballers mentally.
A prime example in recent years is the story of Marvin Sordell – an England Under 21 international whose form dipped, it was claimed, because of an addiction to social media.
“It could be bordering on an obsession with Twitter and Facebook and all the things that go on with these kids,” Sordell’s manager at Bolton, Dougie Freedman, told The Independent. “We are trying to work with him – by taking his phone off him. We have just got to get him settled down and help him with some of the off-the-field antics.”
Cooper, too, is baffled by the craze and sees it as a distraction for his players in their preparation for crucial League One matches.
“It does get into their lives. I’m sure young players spend far too much time on that rather than preparing for games and applying themselves properly,” he said.
When asked whether players’ concentration is worse now than it was 20 or 30 years ago, Cooper said: “One hundred per cent. I don’t think you can change it. I think you have to try to educate the group the best you can, try to show them the way on the training pitch.
“You’re always going to have Facebook, you’re always going to have Twitter, Instagram - I’ve heard about that one, Snapchat, Tinder.”
Sports psychologist Victor Thompson feels it is not just social media but technology in general that has limited a human’s capacity for memory and concentration.
“Telephones remember the numbers for you, we’ve got more ability to hold more information not in our heads but in mobile devices,” he said. “I don’t think it’s just social media that would do that, I think it’s technology that helps in giving us less of a need for remembering stuff.
“That used to be a highly valued skill but nowadays it’s less so. In the past if you had one thing to read you’d have the newspaper and you’d focus on that. Now you can focus on thousands if not millions of different things if you’re online.”
Thompson suggests that social media can have a huge impact, often negative, on players who find it hard to filter out the bundles of negative criticism – much of it often exaggerated and abusive.
“I’ve worked with footballers who have had real difficulty after a match not looking up what people have said about them before the newspapers come out,” he said.
“It’s important how they’re evaluated and for most players there is a temptation to have a look. For others who are more thick skinned or don’t really care as much about what other people think they wouldn’t read these things and wouldn’t be further affected by the negative comments.
“It can be difficult if you are prone to be affected by other people’s opinions - and we all are to some degree, some more than others - then reading it can be a blow to your confidence and can make you more fearful of going out there again.
“If there are more sources for people to give you a ribbing or more sources for you to get down on yourself then that’s a risk. It’s playing with fire reading that stuff.”
Footballers are perhaps the most trolled of any industry’s workforce, both on Twitter and other online networking sites. They’re easy targets. Many are fragile, caught up quite rightly in their own performances and, like most of us, desperate for positive attention.
However, the main focus of directives issued to them by those entrusted with a duty of care is on preventing the media getting hold of information, stopping arguments going public, avoiding embarrassing situations. It appears that the other, hugely dangerous side of Twitter – a player’s psychological state – is neglected in a fog of paranoia and mistrust.
“It can work each way. If it’s having a negative impact on you and preventing you from bouncing back from performances and playing on your mind it’s probably something to interpret differently or limit your contact with that media,” said Thompson.
“There have been players that I’ve seen that I’d tell to look at it less if it’s having a big impact, but that’s easier said than done.
“If you’re very good at looking for the good and getting rid of the bad then that’s brilliant but most of us aren’t so good at that, and the bad hurts and has an impact on us.”
So, what good does Twitter do in the world of football? Plenty, it would appear, but at what cost?
When a player’s ability to perform at his highest levels is threatened by an injury, a bereavement, a run in with the law or the like, a club will act accordingly to coax him through a difficult time. When it comes to social media, they are simply left to their own devices. Unless, of course, the club’s good name could come into disrepute.
“I don’t get it. I don’t see the point,” said Cooper. “If you want to tweet someone that you’ve got two Shredded Wheat instead of three, I just don’t get it. If you’re wearing one shinpad bigger than the other I don’t know why you’d want to share that at all.
“All it does is block out the art of conversation. People don’t talk to each other like they used to, they’d rather go on Twitter and say it. That’s the way society is going but we’d do well to change it.”
Thompson is less critical but advises use with caution.
“I think it’s a good thing,” he said. “Why not engage with the fans? Why not have that relationship? But don’t do it when the emotions are high and consider that what you write might be read by anyone and used at any point in time.”
Like Thompson mentions, that is easier said than done.
Twitter itself is a valuable tool in promoting the game but do clubs do enough to promote its healthy use among their own employees? #imnotsosure