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The Herd

Has social media, specifically Twitter, increased groupthink amongst football fans?

Jordan Mansfield

When Coppinger steered the ball into the net, in the 25th minute of Saturday’s game, my immediate reaction was, apart from feeling depressed, predictable. I tweeted. This is now my automatic response to significant moments in football games I am following: unthinking and immediate. "Reading behind. Well that's the game gone isn't it, based on recent history?", I despondently typed. In a magnificently splendid fashion, I was completely and utterly wrong.

But, when I checked the #readingfc hashtag feed, I noticed something interesting. Pretty much everybody else said exactly the same thing I did, simultaneously. This was, in many ways, not surprising. As it was based on recent form, our shared pessimism was not plucked out of the air.

Still, it is not the first time I have noticed evidence of groupthink in football commentary on social media. The responses to Chelsea’s utilitarian and brutally effective dismissal of Liverpool also elicited a similar groundswell of almost identical platitudes. For instance, a lot of people noted that Mourinho ‘parked the bus’. Now, that analysis is not necessarily wrong.  But nobody else seemed to be saying anything original. It was striking the extent to which people were reiterating what others had already said.

This got me thinking. Has social media itself encouraged this relative uniformity of opinion among football fans?

Now, I accept that trendy opinions have always been a fact of life. Certain ideas sometimes become part of the furniture of football-talk; a great example would be England and penalty-taking mishaps. Clichés have always existed. But I suspect that social media exacerbates this phenomenon. For example, the hashtag system may, in an ideal world, encourage debate. In some cases, it does. Yet, most of the time, it just seems to list an endless number of Twitter users saying essentially the same thing. People, wanting to fit in, tweet the popular platitude, and the assumption proliferates. Next week, the ‘in’ opinion could be very different – even completely contradictory. As an example, Reading fans often appear to swing wildly between positions on figures such as McAnuff and Adkins, depending on what happened in the latest game. Judging by this often schizophrenic nature of the Twittersphere, I suspect many people may be blindly following the herd

I freely admit that I regularly just accept the common opinion myself. Not all of this is due to Twitter. My knowledge of the tactical intricacies of the beautiful game is scant; I am merely an enthusiastic amateur. Consequently, when I do offer an opinion, I generally play it safe. However, this may not be the only factor. I do wonder on the extent to which my use of social media, with its mob-like tendencies, has significantly affected the way I view football teams, players and managers.

In an age of managers joining and leaving clubs through a revolving door (see, I’m almost certain I stole that image from somewhere), groupthink could potentially be a problem. If the baying mob collectively target one particular person, perhaps a struggling manager of one of the UK’s biggest football teams, it can then only be a matter of time before boards and executives feel they have to act. Fergie did not have to face the perils of Facebook and Twitter opinion when he had his shaky start at Manchester United.

I am sure most of us do consider our opinions on various Reading and football related matters carefully. But, is Twitter making us more homogenous in our opinions? Should we think twice before retweeting that dry comment from a football journalist, or that witty joke from Hoops? Your thoughts, as always, are very welcome.