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There can be no doubting that social media is an essential and intrinsic part of modern life. Facebook can boast around 1.9 billion monthly users, just over a quarter of the planet’s population. YouTube has a billion users a month and Instagram and Twitter have 600 million and 313 million respectively. Traditional media is having to find ways in which to engage with the new format on the block.

This is visible in the ever present hashtags that accompany so many TV shows and the migration of many newspapers to digital incarnations. Even Radio One has a YouTube channel, which enables its listeners to become viewers. However, its desperate bid to stay relevant seems to be a losing one. The Global Web Index, following a poll in 2014, found that people on average spend up to just over six hours a day using online media, compared to just over two hours watching traditional TV, and less than an hour consuming traditional press.

Football, of course, could not – and has not – remained unaffected. There has been a huge shift in the mentality of clubs about social media. Originally viewed with caution and scepticism, it is now embraced as a vital part of a club’s marketing strategy. Manchester United’s managing director Richard Arnold has spoken of the club’s 71 million Facebook likes and 11 million Twitter follows with the same pride as one might for a league title.

The fact that United used social media to reveal and hype up the signing of Paul Pogba is a sign of the times. The #Pogback campaign, which included a “shareable sized” video with UK rapper Stormzy, could arguably be seen as more successful than the player himself has been thus far. It generated 635,000 interactions on Instagram – dwarfing rival clubs’ similar announcements. The next nearest was Barcelona’s unveiling of Luis Suárez with 219,000. Social media is the future of the business side of the game.

Players are in on the act too. Cristiano Ronaldo has 120 million followers on his official Facebook page and 99 million on Instagram. It is a way of controlling his public image, what news gets released, and how and when. It is, for example, the way in which he announced the birth of his son in 2009.  It is also, obviously, a way for him to promote brand CR7. Joey Barton’s use of twitter has arguably done more for his popularity than his playing career. We as supporters now have a greater insight than ever into the personality and psyche of the professional footballer.

And that brings us to the fans. Never before have we had such a platform for the voice of the supporters. To find the number of twitter accounts relating to football would be an insurmountable task. From accounts that offer club news and opinion to the new wave journalism accounts and parody and humour based accounts, the sheer size of football twitter is immeasurable, and that’s without even attempting to include the number of average joe accounts that interact and tweet about football.

On top of this, we have a multitude of YouTube vloggers who offer their opinion on either their own club or the state of football in general. There are the more specific Fan TV YouTube channels that garner the post-match opinions of fans after games. It is a massive and highly influential new medium in the world of football. It is the bar room discussion of the 21st-century football fan.

But is any of this a good thing? Is it killing football or is it simply a re-birth of the beautiful game?

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Football is the world’s sport. No other sport comes close. In Simon Kuper’s Football Against The Enemy, he notes that prior to the USA 94 World Cup, it was estimated that 31 billion people would watch the World Cup final (the population of earth being approximately seven billion). While this is clearly impossible, it highlights that football is the one thing that unites the globe.

Bill Shankly’s famous life and death quote denotes just how significant a role football plays in the lives of fans. It is, to all intents and purposes, a religion. And like religion, the fear is that modernisation, and in particular the growing influence of social media, is going to result in the game’s demise.

To understand this fully, we must first look at the shared attributes of football and religion, and comprehend the role modernisation has played in religions’ decline in order to evaluate the risks social media pose to the peoples’ game.

A full comparison of football and religion is beyond the scope of this article. Much has been written on the topic, and the work of R.W. Cole, Football As A Surrogate Religion, is possibly the seminal starting point. Cole uses the work of Emile Durkheim to aid his study.

Following his observations of aboriginal tribes and comparing them to modern religion, Durkheim states: “Religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things …which unite into one single moral community called a church, all those who adhere to them.” He highlights the significance of the development of the feeling of a “social unit” and the “passions released” when this unit comes together.

Coles focuses his comparison of football and religion on this notion, claiming that these concepts – unity and the sacred – are evident in both religious events, like a mass, and at football matches. When talking about football he describes “unheard of passions and volatility that lift the congregation outside of the normal”. Durkheim also claims that it is the notion of the “social unit” that creates the sacred feeling around the event or place.

Both religion and football can be said to “give unity to a people, unity via a generally held consensus over certain beliefs and via the process of communal practices, with the aim of finding a direction and purpose for both the community and the individual’s respective lives in connection to something higher or sacred”.

In terms of religion, people united over their belief in a God and the joy in which they are brought together. In football, people unite over their beliefs in a certain team and the way the game should be played. They come together to sing and to worship certain players who are capable of miraculous things and whose actions bring a sense of ecstasy to our lives. And this sense of community takes on a significance greater than ourselves, giving our lives more purpose.

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Two key factors that enable this comparison to be plausible are the social unit that each create and the sense of wonder and awe that they invoke. And it is these two elements that social media may be destroying. It is possible that religion can act as a cautionary tale.

Steve Bruce (the sociologist not the beleaguered promotion/relegation merchant) explains that modernization caused problems for religion. To summarise his work in God is Dead, modernisation has resulted in a move away from the traditional setup – that of following the authority of the Church – and a rise in different groups with conflicting voices. This has led to an issue of plausibility, in which it has become difficult to surrender to the general consensus of how to best worship and follow God – because there is no longer a general consensus.

This detraditionalisation has also led to a rise in individualism, with people of faith effectively picking the aspects of their religion to follow or dismiss. Consequently, people feel less of a connection with the Church because it no longer speaks to or for them. In short, the social unit that Durkheim suggests is fundamental to religion has become fractured, and as a result, religious significance in modernity is waning.

It is possible that social media poses a similar threat to football.

On 2 April 2017, Arsenal drew with Manchester City, twice coming from behind to keep alive faint hopes of finishing in the top four. Outside the ground, Arsenal Fan TV – a YouTube channel founded and hosted by Robbie Lyle – set up for their usual post-match discussions. What followed was bedlam, with a number of fellow Arsenal supporters attempting to attack the presenter and his team.

The tensioned related to Arsenal Fan TV’s criticism of Arsène Wenger and the calls for him to leave. The attackers pushed their way to the front of the crowd to confront Lyle, shouting at him that “it’s not about you” and “you’re a money maker” before becoming aggressive and aiming a kick at the presenter.

Prior to the game there had been protests from some, with vans displaying anti-Wenger messages and calling for Wexit. During the match, footage emerged of Arsenal fans fighting amongst themselves inside the stadium before eventually being ejected. Empty seats and booing are becoming a more familiar sight, with the growing Wenger In/Wenger Out campaigns causing strains that are creating cracks in the Arsenal fan base. It is a pattern that can be seen to repeat itself on Twitter and other social media platforms.

West Ham recently hosted a fans forum in which presenters of Hammers Chat and West Ham Fan TV, news and opinion accounts such as West Ham World and The West Ham Way, and a few others were invited to discuss concerns with Karren Brady. On the agenda, amongst other things, were issues with the stadium move and what the board could do to improve the experience of fans at the London Stadium. This followed high-profile incidents of West Ham fans fighting each other and stewards at games this season.

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The cause of tensions here were the conflicting views on the best way to cope with leaving the Boleyn Ground and how to best to support the side at the new ground (sit down, as instructed by the board and safety regulators or ‘stand up if you love West Ham’). The underlying issue is a disconnect between the fans and the club and a mistrust of the board following perceived unfulfilled promises about the new ground and summer signings.

The chosen ones conveyed their views to Brady and then fed back to their followers via their social media platforms what the baroness had said. The response they received ranged from being called ‘sell-outs’ to ‘you don’t speak for me’.

On a smaller yet no less significant scale, a formula of friction is replicated on a daily basis. Fan A posts an opinion about the club or a player while Fan B posts an alternative few and questions the legitimacy of Fan A’s claim to be a real fan of the club. Fan A retorts with an insult of some description – and on and on ad infinitum.

That is not to say that fans haven’t always had different views about the varying quality of a manager or the performance of the board or a player. The difference is that these disagreements would happen in the pub or at home or some other more local locale. They would also happen amongst friends and a consensus would generally be met that, even if the views couldn’t be reconciled, the love for the club would overcome. To borrow from Durkheim, the social unit would win out against any difference of opinion.

Social media allows anonymity, which means these people do not feel a need to be civil to their fellow fans. The public nature of these disputes means that, as Bruce suggested about religion, it becomes more difficult for people to just go along with the general consensus – because the general consensus is no longer evident. Even if, for example, the majority of Arsenal fans want Wenger to stay, the very visual presence of the Wenger Out brigade mean that recognising this is almost impossible.

The consequence of this is that the social unit is lost. Fans go to games not knowing whether they are singing from the right hymn sheet. 

The other issue plaguing social media are the players and proficiency. George Clooney once said that he did not understand why any famous person would be on Twitter, claiming that “the worst thing you can do is make yourself more available, right? What he meant was that it takes away the mystery and the intrigue. The same could be said of footballers.

If you worship a player, the last thing you want is to see all their faults and thoughts. It humanises the Gods of the game. It also aids the detrimental disconnect between the players and the fans. Players posting pictures on Instagram of their supercars and luxury living quarters only further emphasises the gulf in income between us and our heroes. Whereas once we would be excited by the skills and ability of players and impressed by their work rate, we now see the money and lifestyle our support buys them and feel they should do more and do it more often.

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Maybe we are right, but it all adds to a separation between the fans and those we support. And as we have seen with reference to the decline of the Church, if the connection is lost, so too is the commitment.

It is not all bad, though; there is light and darkness in everything and social media is no different. Liverpool fans in particular have often utilised the platform for the betterment of the club and its supports. The hashtag demanding justice for the 96 has helped to keep the fight of the families who lost loved ones at Hillsborough at the forefront of public’s consciousness.

When the Fenway Sports Group, who own the club, wanted to raise the ticket prices to £77, fans were able to organise and orchestrate the protests via social media and make other fans – and the board – aware of their proposed actions using #WalkOutOn77. It is an example that shows that social media can in fact strengthen the social unit.

Outside of football lie even greater examples of the power social media can have. In Turkey, protesters used Facebook and Twitter to organise and share information about their resistance to government proposals to redevelop Gezi Park. They shared videos and photos of the protests and the police raids on them, which helped to garner support for their cause both within Turkey and the wider global community.

The Arab Springs of 2011, in which a number of countries across the Middle East staged anti-government protests, uprisings and armed rebellions, owed a great deal to social media. The aims of these acts varied, from wanting political reform to overthrowing dictatorships and monarchies, but social platforms played a huge role in tying them together. It facilitated communication and interaction among protestors, who used them to organise demonstrations, disseminate information about their activities, and raise local and global awareness of ongoing events.

These events show the positive power that social media can have. There are many things that football fans are unhappy with. The seemingly never ending and forever rising costs of supporting our side, the corruption that seeps through the game at all levels, the need for greater equality for minority races, genders and sexualities; the list goes on. But there is reason to be hopeful that football as a global community can form a social unit that can preserve the game that we love.

Football Beyond Borders is seeking to use football to help educate and inspire young children from disadvantaged backgrounds around the world. Organisations like Kick It Out have a social media presence and many clubs choose to use the platform to raise awareness of the charitable work they do and gather support for this groups from their followers. #AgainstModernFootball is a constant on many a social media timeline. There is a silver lining to the cloud of 21st-century football.

And yet the risk posed by things that divide us and diminish the magic of football must be taken seriously. The game brings so much to so many. It unites people from all sides of the planet, and together elevates us through remarkable skill and collective worship, to a place few other things can. We must hope that the double-edged sword that is social media is the tool used to help football fight for its faith against the modernisation that slew religion, rather than the weapon that kills the beautiful game as we know it 

By Greg Richardson    @rakis14