Friday, May 20, 2011

The Trouble with Twitter

photo by carrotcreativevia PhotoRee

Let me start out by saying this: I love Twitter.  I find it interesting to see the "unfiltered" thoughts of the various Manchester United players on the social networking service, as well as a useful form of communication with people of like minds around the globe.  But the focus of today's column is not about how much I love Twitter, but rather on how it may be leading to unforseen problems in the Manchester United camp.

Rather than the agent-polished, PR-produced ramblings of Cristiano Ronaldo's Twitter account ("I scored two goals today, and am very proud of the team's achievement"), the steady stream of "tweets" coming from the United camp of players is authentic, and often unfiltered.  Rio Ferdinand was first to the game, cultivating a direct and instant communication bond with his fans. Rio opened up the inside of an athlete's mind to his legions of supporters, and created a movement. He's been richly rewarded for his early adoption: Rio is now consistently the number one or two most followed person on Twitter in England, and has his own personal army of more than a million followers.

Rio was followed by Luis Nani, who has also done remarkably well on the medium, despite the fact that English is not his first language. Nani took to Twitter like a Portuguese duck takes to water, and was warmly greeted by the Twitterverse. In short order, Antonio Valencia and Michael Owen followed. The former has tweeted only infrequently, hampered by his admitted lack of command of the English language; the latter has been a revelation, adding some rich and well received insight into the beating heart of a true player. Michael Owen's foray into Twitter has been universally well received, and the former scouse heartbreaker has been transformed into Red Devil elder spokesman before our very eyes, both on the pitch and off it.

Then the story becomes more complicated. Owen was followed in short order by Wayne Rooney, and for a brief but eventful moment, by Darren Gibson, as well.  While Wazza's appearance in the Twitter-verse coincided with his overall return to form, and the outpouring of affection from his fans appears genuine, Gibson's foray into social media, brief as it was, marked another kind of reaction among the fan base: unfiltered abuse. So strong was the string of epithets and critiscism directed at the Irishman that he lasted a whopping 45 minutes or so before closing his account. Sometimes it's truly better not to know what people REALLY think of you.

All of a sudden, United players were coming out of seemingly every corner to join Twitter -- even the Reserve and U-18 squad members were getting in on the social networking fun. And at thi spoint it began to it dawn on me (and several other of my Twitter-mates): although fun, this can't possibly end well. It takes a certain type of maturity to handle direct interaction with the public, because that interaction not only includes an exchange of tweets with adoring fans, but also with virulent opposition.  A player's "tweets," are now another form of public utterance, watched and read like entrails by an overzealous press corp that is only rarely allowed to sit down in person with the players in question, and thus predisposed to make a mountain out of even the smallest molehill.

Which brings us to Tuesday evening, in which the one and only, inimitable Mr. Rooney had a bit of a public spat with a Liverpool fan on Twitter, (lightheartedly, if that's possible) threatening to take a golf club to his head, and inviting the scouser at his convenience to Carrington to receive his beat down in person.   

“I will put u asleep within 10 seconds hope u turn up if u don’t gonna tell everyone ur scared u little nit. I’ll be waiting," gleefully tweeted our Wayne.

Energized by the back and forth "banter," some significant percentage of the Twitter-verse commended United's Number Ten for his public humiliation of the beleaguered scaffolder, who appeared from a brief review of his timeline to have only the loosest command of the English language. At some point, though, Rooney must have woken up to the potential carnage -- perhaps his dim-witted agent, the infamous, vacuum-selling Mr. Stretford intervened? -- and quickly dismissed the conflagration as innocent "banter," the kind of lighthearted folly young males of a certain age engage in, replacing yesterday's ritual beating of the chest with today's modern beating of the keyboard. Although clearly I don't believe Rooney was in the slightest serious in his intent to do bodily harm, he did see the need to issue a public statement clarifiying his behavior:
"As is made clear in the tweets, the whole exhange is banter," it read.  "There is no suggestion, nor is there any intention of a suggestion, of a real fight."
But that's the point.  There's troubles lurking in them there tweets, trouble that may become overblown and magnified, and that may distract Rooney from the one and only thing he should be focusing on at this point in the season: beating Barca.  It takes a certain maturity to interact with all types of followers, both those who love you and those who hate you, as well as the ability to discern between what's good natured "banter" (Rio Ferdinand's "Moobs" campaign against Piers Morgan, for example) and what is an attempt at good natured "banter" that can sound a bit more serious.  I worry that many menbers of the team who are currently on Twitter (ex-elder Statesmen Rio and Owen) are poorly equipped to handle the situation, and that things could quickly escalate beyond where they are comfortable with their limited, highly-sheltered experience.

So here's my advice to Wayne: stay off Twitter for the next couple of weeks, and focus on just one thing.  If we beat Barca you can tweet to your heart's content.

This is farlieonfootie for May 20.

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