Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Social Networks Help World Cup Spectators Cope With Chance

Given the reduced volume of World Cup related posts in my Twitter and Facebook streams, it appears that soccer fever is abating the in US. The reach of the World Cup has been far this year, thanks in part to the role of social media outlets in encouraging discussion and raising awareness about the sport. For a few weeks, Twitter and Facebook were inundated with World Cup related posts, with Twitter reporting surges well above the general 750 Tweets-per-second (TPS) the normally constitute usage on the site. Marked by soccer ball icons and the flags of participating countries, conversations and comments about the World Cup were highly visible. How did this change the experience for World Cup spectators—particularly for Americans?

Just prior to the 2002 World Cup, anthropologist Koen Stroeken commented that as Internet connectivity and satellite reception increased, interest in the competition would strengthen. He writes:
In my view televised soccer, rather than acting as a metaphor or outlet for emotions, is the medium through which spectators experience their synchrony with the world (2002: 9).
That is to say, connectivity raises local awareness to a global scale. In 2002 and years prior, before the potential of social media as a connective agent had been fully realized, the experience of World Cup spectators was a local one. Whether you were present at the pitch for the matches, watching from local bars or at home, or discussing play-by-plays the next day at the office or on the phone, the experience of the event was a local one. However, global involvement is almost inherent to the World Cup, which highlights power and international status. Spectators are drawn to the World Cup to bear witness to the state of national identities which are correlated to team performance, and social experience. Stroeken writes:
Football magnifies but does not contradict our experience of society: boring matches, lucky wins, efforts that pay off or not, passionate Brazilians, organized Germans. Supporters across the globe collectively construct national identities, to which they attach emotions. In the match they witness how a single destiny affects both teams (differently). The inclusion of the extra-human factor of chance makes for a credible replica of society and thus reinforces the social significance of victory or defeat (2002:9).
The human factor of chance, as Stroeken identified it is, perhaps one reason Americans have not taken to the sport as the rest of the world has. Soccer has a longer history in the US than in most participating countries, but Stroeken suggests that low participation and interest is related to the element of chance, which can undo preparation and runs counter to American culture:
Not only may the best team lose, but the match itself can end in deadlock. True, because goals are relatively unique events in the match, they represent a moment of euphoric climax. But fans also have to live with the spectre of the goalless draw … As a form of popular culture, it is intriguing. Hit songs and Hollywood movies do not stop halfway, in a goalless draw. Football can (2002: 13).
Chance, Stroeken claims, provides the opportunity for powerful political entities to be brought low. Stroeken references England’s hesitation to participate in international soccer competitions during the height of colonialism: established nations have little to gain from participating in games of chance intertwined with national interests. The closest parallel that can be drawn to the World Cup is the Olympics. However, Olympic games are not subject to chance: large nations have the advantage because they have more athletes to compete in events (Stroeken 2002: 10). With soccer, there are 22 players on the field interacting and manipulating a ball (with hopefully little interference from the referee). It requires constant adaptation, which is an expectation that runs counter to cultures emphasizing process and technique.

Soccer could be then be ignored by the American public. There was no incentive to participate—no reason to support a game or a team subject to the uncertainty of chance. It was better to allow the game to occur in the periphery, and since responses were largely local in nature, there was little residual effect. Global connectivity has changed this. Local viewpoints are no longer contained. They are posted on Twitter and Facebook for the world to see, and so “established” nations that have largely restrained from participation find that they have no other choice but to raise their voices in defense of national identity.

Given the expansiveness of online social networks, users cannot help but be drawn in by the majority. That is to say, even non-fans who weren’t interested or actively watching the games had a sense of match outcomes, including perceived slights by officials. It was difficult to avoid the chatter that appeared in Twitter and Facebook streams. For example, Twitter reported TPS surges in usages when:
  1. Japan scored against Cameroon on June 14 in their 1-0 victory (2,940 TPS)
  2. Brazil scored their first goal against North Korea in their 2-1 June 14 victory (2,928 TPS)
  3. Mexico tied South Africa in their June 11 game (2,704 TPS)
The end of Japan's 3-1 victory over Denmark set a record that bested the end of the Los Angeles Laker victory over the Boston Celtics with 3,085 TPS. And Facebook spokesman Jonathan Thaw reported that 30% of all updates referred to the England-US match on June 12th. Stroeken’s prediction about connectivity and interest has definitely proved true. Web traffic manager Akamai Technologies Inc. reported 12.1 million visitors to its network of news sites on the opening day of the World Cup. Global synchrony necessitates a response, and these responses ripple through digital networks.

In a game filled with uncertainties, social media has provided an outlet for real-time discussions about the surprises and upsets that constitute the nature of the sport. So those nations that have been hesitant to delve into the fray can back participation with a voice behind their names and flags on the pitch. Though chance may still be a large factor in the outcome of the game, its damaging effects can be managed by the mobilized network. Responses to yellow cards have hotly debated the fairness and the competence of the referees, and engaged the global community. It remains to be seen whether soccer will gain momentum in the US, but spectators around the world have realized that the experience of international events is truly a global one, and participation counts heavily.

Photo by Tembela Bohle from Pexels

ResearchBlogging.orgStroeken, K. (2002). Why 'the world' loves watching football (and 'the Americans' don't) Anthropology Today, 18 (3), 9-13 DOI: 10.1111/1467-8322.00119

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