Last year, in my mind at least, was the year of Twitter.
Just take a look at the statistics; over 100 million new users last year alone, as well as a staggering 25 billion posts tweeted over that same time period. Suddenly, sharing your feelings on a given issue or communicating with another Twitter user (all while suffering the burden of being limited to only 140 characters) became the favourite activity of a wave of new devotees.
Or did it?
I say this because the same statistical analysis that told us of the staggering rates at which Twitter is now being used also told us who exactly is using it. Recent figures from a sizeable survey suggest that not only does the average Twitter user have a mere 27 followers (in Facebook terms, think of followers as becoming a fan rather than a friend, this is usually a one-way street) and that over 80 percent of Twitter users have shared less than 10 tweets during their entire Twitter existence.
So if that is the case, what on earth is causing Twitter to become so influential and gain so many new users? In short, it is the presence of a notable few who form the bulk of Twitter’s appeal, namely the famous names and faces from the worlds of television, film, music and sport: collectively known as the ‘Twitterati’.
The opportunity to communicate immediate updates to what has effectively become an online mailing list of fans has obvious appeal to celebrity users. The most popular Twitter user at present is pop star Lady Gaga, who currently has around 7.6 million followers tracking her every move, while the top amongst footballers is Cristiano Ronaldo with just over 1.4 million.
For the fan, or follower, the attraction comes not only from the opportunity to be updated with the thoughts—or more likely shameless promotions—of their favourite celebrities, but also the off-chance that they may have some direct interaction with them. Some of these famous figures respond to a few of the many tweets they receive from other users, and herein lies one of Twitter’s biggest draws.
If you are one of the lucky few who receives a direct reply from one of your favourites, it allows you to entertain the notion that they may have handpicked your tweet from a sea of many on the basis that they found you particularly entertaining, insightful or amusing, and that this may be the beginning of a beautiful online friendship. While the first possibility may be true, the second is almost certainly not, but it doesn’t stop us from messaging our favourite stars on a regular basis.
[Just to say, I don’t write this from a standpoint of mockery, or condescending pity, but from experience. On a personal note, the week in which I received a reply from one of my favourite basketball players (Tracy McGrady of the Detroit Pistons) and one of my favourite journalists (Gab Marcotti of the Times newspaper, amongst others) was one of the highlights of my online existence.]
The great thing about Twitter is that it is big enough to allow all these figures of varying degrees of notoriety to exist across the same platform. Each individual user follows exactly who they want, and chooses not to follow the rest. Personally I find the insights of Ronaldo and Gaga a lesser attraction than those of up and coming footballers like Nile Ranger of Newcastle United or Sanchez Watt of Arsenal, but I’m sure Gaga can survive without me.
Even relatively lesser-known footballers manage to garner sizeable lists of followers, usually into the tens of thousands, which usually means that anything particularly interesting or controversial they say will receive attention of some sort, and it is this issue which has provided a headache for a number of footballers and their clubs in recent weeks.
The first case came on the morning of December 28, when Newcastle United Spanish left-back Jose Enrique revealed via a tweet that he was disappointed to announce that he would not be fit for the game at Tottenham later that day.
In some cases that may have been seen a friendly gesture showing Enrique’s rapport with fans concerned for his well-being, except that Newcastle boss Alan Pardew had wanted to keep the Spaniard’s fitness level under wraps until the team was announced just before kickoff.
Pardew was understandably annoyed at Enrique’s carelessness and its effects on the team’s preparation, and it was no coincidence to see the player’s Twitter account deleted just days later. Pardew himself was open about the club’s decision to brief the squad on appropriate use of their online activities, telling The Guardian newspaper:
"We are giving a presentation to the squad about the current format of information. Hopefully we will get that right. We don't want players tweeting about their fitness on the day of games but we are not going to stop freedom of speech. It is not the Chinese republic here."
Should players be allowed Twitter accounts?
So our first case of Twitter folly passes off with relative little damage, especially compared to what happened at League Two team Aldershot this week. Striker Marvin Morgan found himself in hot water after a seriously ill-advised tweet aimed at the club’s fans.
Morgan, who is Aldershot’s top league goalscorer so far this season, was booed off the pitch when he was withdrawn during the side’s 2-1 defeat to Hereford on Monday, and Morgan let fans know exactly how he felt later that evening, tweeting:
“Like to thank the fans who booed me off the pitch. Where's that going to get you! I hope you all die.”
Although the message was later deleted by Morgan, it had already come to the attention of fans and club officials alike, and Morgan was swiftly fined two weeks wage and placed on the transfer list for his comments. The club later released the following statement detailing their disciplinary action:
“The player accepted that his conduct was totally misguided and inappropriate and he accepts that his actions were incorrect and ill disciplined. Accepting that his actions had been foolish he explained that they had been made in the heat of the moment and apologised for the distress he had caused.
“The football club are satisfied that the player meant no malice with his comments. However they were completely irresponsible and contrary to the values of Aldershot Town Football Club. The club is also of the opinion that careful consideration is required for all future use of social networking sites by players and staff as a means of communication.”
Seemingly unaware of the storm that can be caused by an ill-advised Twitter post, Liverpool fullback Glen Johnson decided to make some controversial (and swiftly deleted) comments of his own earlier this afternoon. With Twitter abuzz at the news of Roy Hodgson’s dismissal, it was Johnson who provided the most eye-catching comments with his response to criticism from former player turned television pundit Paul Merson.
Speaking about Hodgson’s dismissal on Sky Sports flagship football show Gillette Soccer Saturday, Merson laid a fair portion of the blame at the feet of the players, in particular Johnson, who in Merson’s own words “can’t defend for toffee” and “wouldn’t go for anywhere near £18m were he to go on sale tomorrow.”
Johnson responded in some style, posting the following on Twitter soon after:
“Comments from alcoholic drug abusers are not going to upset me and who is Paul Merson to judge players. He was average at the best of times, the only reason he is on that show is coz he gambled all his money away. The clown!"
Johnson’s comments have already been deleted, but they were online for at least an hour, which is ample time for them to have made their way onto numerous message boards and websites, and it remains to be seen what the fall out will be of this particular disagreement.
These three cases are particularly notable, but are far from the totality of trouble that professional footballers have found themselves in due to their Twitter-based activities.
So what is the answer?
Some clubs may seek to enforce tighter controls on their player’s online activity, although as Pardew alluded to, a complete lockdown seems unrealistic and somewhat draconian. Some level of guidance seems necessary though, particularly with many footballers showing a propensity for foot-in-mouth moments.
Twitter, and other social networking devices, are a fantastic tool for football’s elite to communicate with supporters, but when they infringe on team preparations, a player’s future at the club or in the case of young Brazilian superstar Neymar—who allegedly called a referee “a cheat” through his Twitter account—almost cause a suspension, then there clearly needs to be closer attention paid to this new phenomenon.
When it comes to the social networking futures of professional footballers, many aspects seem uncertain. One thing, though, is sure: When footballers and Twitter are in the mix, the results are usually explosive.
(NB. Neymar claimed his Twitter account had been hacked and eventually escaped punishment from a sports tribunal.)