Alex Ferguson dominates Twitter as he does football, but he won’t have noticed

Few people could dominate a sphere of public life, like social media, of which they have the most rudimentary understanding

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The Twitter grief started late last night.

People began to tweet about rumours of a ‘big announcement’ from Manchester United. The speculation got more and more frenzied - have the Glazers found a new sponsor? Is it the return of Cristiano Ronaldo? Or, surely not, is it the end for Sir Alex Ferguson?

It was difficult to tell in amongst the digital ululating whether any of this had any substance. Were we witnessing the first instance of a Twitter retirement - the pipe and slippers equivalent of a Twitter death that has been foisted on so many celebrities? Then, the story gained some legs as the newspapers began to write, and tweet, about it: Sir Alex was ‘seriously considering’ retiring. As it turned out, he’d gone beyond that, but last night, no-one could tell if this was the papers feeding off Twitter, or the other way around. In a digital age, it becomes difficult to know whether newspapers are reacting to what Twitter and Google analytics are telling them to publish, or whether they are actually writing up an actual story. You know, the old-fashioned way, with sources and everything.

Then, this morning, the muffled bell tolled, in the way it does in these social media times - with an ‘official tweet’, complete with hashtag. The great man stands down, but someone in Old Trafford had had time to whip up a quick social media strategy around it.

So, at 9.18am this morning, the Manchester United Press Office Account tweeted ‘Sir Alex Ferguson retires #thankyousiralex’. Twenty six years of trophy hunting and they couldn’t even manage to fill up the allowance of characters. Almost as many trophies as character in the tweet, in fact. But no matter, within the hour the tweet had been repeated 18,000 times and there were 1.4 million mentions of the story on Twitter. In that hour, the hashtag dreamt up in the United press office had been repeated 100,000 times - inside 10 minutes, it was the number one trending hashtag worldwide.

Celebrities and politicians rushed to pay tribute, in a frenzy not seen for…ooh, weeks when Thatcher died. David Cameron called Ferguson ‘exceptional’ before name-checking ‘his’ team, Aston Villa (presumably an allegiance researched to establish minimum offence). Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany said we all ‘owe him a tribute’, cheerfully ignoring Ferguson’s calculated attempt to blast City’s imminent cup final win off the sports pages. And Ed Miliband’s advisors appear to have told him that Ferguson had died, pledging that he would ‘never be forgotten’.

Few people could dominate a sphere of public life, like social media, of which they have the most rudimentary understanding. Ferguson has never been a man compelled to over-share - his knowledge of digital media and Twitter especially, must be limited to occasionally chastising Rio Ferdinand for over-opining, and wondering what sort of mess Ryan Giggs had landed himself in. The emotional cycle that Twitter has gone through since last night mimics that of grief - denial (‘we’re signing Cristiano’), anger (‘stop spreading this nonsense’), rationalisation (we’ll have one more season’); depression (Oh God, it Moyes’) and acceptance (‘Mourinho, maybe?’).

And Ferguson won’t have noticed a bit of it.

Further reading
United hope to appoint Moyes by end of the week
Sam Wallace: What next for United after Ferguson?
His best XI during his reign
His 13 titles remembered
Season-by-season guide
Players pay tribute
Ferguson’s statement in full

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