The power balance in football is changing: clubs are finally gaining the upper hand over their own players on Twitter.
For years, teams have been at the mercy of what their players choose to make public on social media, and have often been embarrassed by their revelations, their criticisms – of referees, colleagues and opponents – their indiscretions and even their spelling. But things have altered and the clubs have a new weapon.
Clearly there has been a lack of control over the last few years. In the modern age of top-down media management in the Premier League, Twitter is a rare place where communication from players to fans is direct rather than mediated; that is part of the fun. No club can quite prevent players from writing whatever they want and pressing tweet, but what they can do now is keep more on top of problems than they have been in previous years.
This, in part, is because of Social Pundit, and the Player Alert system at the heart of it. Clubs can monitor the tweets of their players or employees, which are run against a database of more than 3,000 words which might be problematic – obscenities, their derivations, slang and misspellings as well as words that might be linked to the discussion of other controversial topics: referees’ names, opposing managers and so on.
When a player writes something which matches this database, it is categorised as red, amber or green depending on how potentially offensive it is and an email is sent to club staff alerting them, as well as saying how much damage has been done by retweets and discussion.
The point, as with speed cameras, is to prevent rather than to catch. Birmingham City, the first team to pilot Social Pundit, saw a drop from 20 to 30 alert emails every week to two or three now, with most of the worst behaviour eradicated. Developed as recently as October last year, the system has already been taken up by three Premier League clubs, five in the Championship and Celtic, charging from £200 to £300 per month for the most basic service.
It was in response to the well-publicised Twitter incident between Rio Ferdinand and Ashley Cole last year for which Ferdinand was fined £45,000 by the Football Association, that the program was inspired. In reality, though, clubs are only too aware of what England internationals such as Ferdinand, with more than four million followers, and Cole, with more than one million, are saying.
There is more of an issue with young players, fairly low in profile and without too many followers, in the Under-16 or Under-18 team who might be briskly exposed to the first team and the spotlight, and only then have their Twitter account shown to the world. Some concerns are natural but the makers of Social Pundit – an invention by Blueclaw digital agency – insist that they “do not want it to become a Big Brother tool”.
With clubs increasingly keen to use players’ accounts to promote particular campaigns or hashtags, the program monitors which players are the most engaging and well-behaved on Twitter, so as to identify to the clubs who would be their “ideal brand advocates”.
Social Pundit can even – in the same way scouts would assess players’ skills and experience – tell clubs about the Twitter conduct of anyone they are considering signing.
This is a distant world from the football that we are used to – technology has changed and players have moved with it. Only now are the clubs finally catching up.