29 July ~ In the latest issue of WSC, Nick Miller wonders why online football discussion has plumbed such depths of outrage and abuse. Maybe because it's "the easiest thing in the world to create an online persona and hide behind it"

Online writers, especially those whose living often depends on being critical of others (ie footballers), should be able to take criticism. Some things, weird as they are, can be laughed off. Once, in response to one of her pieces on Football365, a reader told columnist Sarah Winterburn that he wanted to "poo in her hair". He didn't even say whether this was punishment, or if he was congratulating her in his own special way. Problems arise, however, when criticism turns into simple-minded abuse. When a piece the Guardian's Rob Smyth wrote in 2006 – in which he basically wrote off Sir Alex Ferguson – resurfaced recently he received death threats.

Why do people think this is acceptable? If one met a stranger and disagreed with their opinion, one probably wouldn't call them "a cunt", but this is a daily occurrence on websites. The most obvious explanation is the anonymity of the internet. It's the easiest thing in the world to create an online persona and hide behind it, to vent your spleen without anything approaching serious consequences. This emboldens those intent on dishing out the foulest of tirades.

Luke Moore, of the Football Ramble podcast, gets a reasonable amount of negative "feedback" from listeners, but finds they suddenly aren't quite as bolshy in real life: "We meet our listeners quite a lot. It's interesting how none of the people that are so vocal over the internet take the opportunity to meet us face to face and tell us the same thing in person. Interesting, but not really surprising."

It is possible that it simply doesn't immediately occur to these people that they are addressing a person. They see an article and direct their ire at the static page, rather than realising they are (virtually, at least) walking into someone's office and telling them they are bad at their job. The internet is perfect for those that convince themselves, consciously or otherwise, that there's no consequence to their comments. Cut down a writer at lunchtime, then go back to your sandwich.

It could be something to do with the sport itself or, more specifically, how it makes us behave. Every single one of us has screamed something at a match that we'd never repeat in "polite" company, but this is excused by the "passion" one feels in a football stadium.
Emotion gets the better of you. That sort of vitriol spills over to the internet, at a time when, theoretically, one should be calm and thinking straight. It is not enough for some to state their opposition to a viewpoint, they have to chuck in a curse, or casually suggest the writer responsible should be sacked. Much like we do at a game.

The ubiquity of football could also be to blame. When all we had was Match of the Day, the words of Brian Glanville et al were basically The Truth. We would have no idea what a non-televised incident was like because we hadn't seen it. Now, football is everywhere, people are theoretically more informed and thus everyone is an expert. Twitter doesn't help in this respect either.

Obviously this isn't confined to football, as anyone who witnessed the awful abuse dished out to Rebecca Black, a 13-year-old who had the temerity to record a not particularly good song, will testify. It is present in other sports, but less prevalent.
Sean Ingle, editor of Guardian Unlimited Sport, explains that the problem doesn't crop up so much elsewhere: "The Guardian's cricket blogs are often a joy, with writers wading in below the line to share anecdotes, answer questions and generally to while away the hours. But football is different, and particularly when it comes to the top teams: it's rare to find a blog that doesn't descend into trolling, name-calling and accusations that the writer is wildly biased."

It could simply be that those who read about other sports are just more polite. Or it could be a consequence of popularity, on the basis that the bigger the following for anything, the more likely there are to be a selection of undesirables whose only response is to shout as loudly as the internet allows.

Moore argues it is because we take football far too seriously. People take such personal ownership of their club that when they read something that is critical of their boys, they take it as a criticism of themselves and launch a stream of invective through their computer.

The well-worded put-down is essential to stop journalists get above their station, but is it necessary or constructive to wish someone dead for a piece of football writing? One can dismiss such threats as loony abuse, but writers already have to be thick-skinned. If this continues then a tin hat will replace a notebook as a journalist's most important piece of kit.

Comments (4)
Comment by MarkBrophy 2011-07-29 14:04:48

People have some strange ideas about what is an acceptable way to behave at football matches, as mentioned here in passing. I've written a blogpost about the subject:

Comment by jonmid 2011-07-29 15:28:39

Good article on the Guardian a lot of comments go on for ages and it soon descends into a petty and pathetic waste of time. Interstingly on the Mirror quite a lot of people will put down the journos such as Brian Reade usually becasue they've written garbage.

I also agree about people taking it to seriously once a friend of mine who supports Stoke got riled up about the way people were attacking Stoke and one person riled him up so much that he spread a rumour on facebook about how he had claymidia

Comment by Jongudmund 2011-08-01 13:47:04

When I read this article in WSC I thought it was a little bit of a petulant moan about how we should treat writers / broadcasters more nicely without any real argument for why. (Sorry, Nick!)

A recent article I wrote for this website saw me criticised for missing out some info that got edited out of my original too-long article, and then I got accused of not being a real fan (what make a fan more of a real fan would be an interesting debate in itself, I guess).

The first crit I can live with and say it happens - you cannot include everything in an article of readable-length so someone will always pick you up on something you 'missed'. And the second one I just shrugged off.

But the fact it provoked negative comments gives some satisfaction in knowing people have read it. Never underestimate the art of trolling - journos do it too.

Comment by benjm 2011-08-01 23:28:48

Without wanting to be predicatable, Sky surely have to take some of the credit for coarsening the football environment. Their customers are constantly encouraged to see themselves as passionate football obsessives but not to demonstrate that enthusiasm in the traditional way by, well, attending football matches. Internet nastiness is just another way of showing how committed you are along with jumping up and down on your sofa or chucking beer over the next table in the pub. Obviously this is a generalisation - there are many who would like to go to games but can't for reasons of cost or capacity and there are loons aplenty inside most grounds. But the overall message is that football is a safe place to connect with your inner tosser and then let him/her call a stranger a c#nt.

Related articles

The reality behind making "footy virals", by the Football Ramble
Footy virals: mainly just cutting people's heads out and sticking them on stuff— The Football Ramble (@...
The internet has killed football fantasists
21 February ~ In the late 1980s I started working for a company whose deputy manager, I was told, "used to play for West Ham". Naturally I...
WSC Web Awards 2011
Ian Plenderleith dishes out WSC'S virtual gongs for the last 12 monthsIt's time for WSC's annual web awards, when we say nice things...

More... internet