In the last fifteen years a new social phenomenon has emerged: social media. The wide penetration of social media on our daily lives potentialise those effects of globalisation (see Miller et al, 2016), to some extent permitting individuals to enjoy and ‘consume’ their favourite sports in different ways compared to our pre-social media world (see Petersen-Wagner, 2017 a b).
Amongst the most used social media platforms in the Western world are WhatsApp (launched in 2009) with over 900 million users, Instagram (launched in 2010) with more than 400 million users, their parent company Facebook (launched in 2004) with 1.19 billion active monthly users, and Twitter (launched in 2006) with 336 million monthly users. The latter in its last quarterly earning report to the market highlighted their growing involvement with live streaming events, and in particular their partnerships with some of the major sport companies and organisations.
Whilst FIFA, and its major event the FIFA Mens World Cup, is not one of Twitter’s partners, the platform can be considered as one of the ideal spaces for fans to congregate while enjoying the games. In a sense, Twitter allows supporters who are physically distant to other fans to engage in conversations between them, and also with their favourite players, ‘teams’, and other ‘famous’ ‘individuals’ who are connected to the event. The study of those engagements can take many forms, as through the netnographic method developed by Kozinets (2002) that I have applied in my previous research (see Petersen-Wagner, 2015, 2017 a b), or through social network analysis that has been already applied in the football context (see Bond et al, 2018), which I will be focusing on today’s blog.
Last night, Brazil played its opening game in the 2018 FIFA World Cup against Switzerland and to understand the social media engagement of the loosely defined fans, I have streamed tweets related to the game starting one hour prior kickoff and finishing at the end of the game. I decided to add into my list all the 23 men squad who have an official Twitter profile (21 in total), the Brazilian FA official profile, the profile of the official broadcasting in Brazil, and two unofficial mascots’ profiles. As such, I have asked Gephi to stream and import ‘all’ interactions to those 25 profiles, meaning that any mentions, retweets or quotes featuring any of those profiles would have been captured. By the end of the game I had collected almost 150,000 ‘profiles’ (the nodes) who have interacted in this network, with over 260,000 interactions (the edges). What we are seeing here (see image below) can be considered as a global community of football fans connected by ‘weak ties’.
The image above shows the entire of the network interactions. To arrive at this visualisation I have applied several appearance settings, such as the node size reflecting how many times they got mentioned/retweeted/quoted, the colour reflecting the different ‘communities’ that formed around those nodes, and a layout algorithm to ‘spread’ the nodes in a way that reflects those ‘communities’. There are few interesting things to note from this wider visualisation. First of all, the largest node we have is of Neymar - to some extent this is to be expected, given that he is the one with the most followers between all profiles I have looked at (40.2 million followers). But next to Neymar we have a fake profile of Gabriel Jesus (this profile has been suspended by Twitter now) and Ludmila, who is a Brazilian singer - the links between those two cultural phenomena (music and sport) is very interesting to be reflected upon in the future. The communities that we can see by the different colours to some extent reflect those different profiles I have looked at, and interestingly is that those players normally tended to be mentioned by their clubs and players associated with those clubs, which reinforced the sense of different communities being formed. If we look at the top of the image (in red) we will see the Gabriel Jesus’ (the official profile) ‘community’ and not surprisingly we will find Ronaldo next to him - the famous Brazilian striker. For the ones not knowing, Gabriel Jesus’ marketing agency is Octagon Brasil, which is controlled by Ronaldo. And more interesting is that Ronaldo is one of the main pundits for the official Brazilian broadcaster (Globo), which might raise some issues regarding his partiality in analysing Jesus’ performance during games.
After this overall view of the network, I want to focus on one of the communities (the top left pink) that is related to one of the unofficial Brazilian mascot’s profiles. The historical mascot Brazil had previously was the yellow canary, normally with a smiling face. Nevertheless, after the 2014 semi-final disaster against Germany the Brazilian FA in 2016 decided to introduce an angry canary that reflected the image they wanted to portray about Brazilian football and its fans - a football mad. This new mascot took social media by storm, and multiple unofficial profiles emerged on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, especially emphasising this mad aspect of Brazilian fans. Moreover, the angry canary in its social media interactions (the unofficial profiles that the Brazilian FA does not bother to prevent existing) normally tend to convey a critique to the modernisation and sanitisation of modern football by storming against those factors. What is interesting is the idea that fans would interact with a mascot, which is not human. In marketing we can explain those kind of interactions through what is called brand anthropomorphism, when there is a personification of inhumane objects as mascots (see Belk, 2014).
What I have tried to do in this blog was just to show some possibilities that social media, and in particular Twitter in this case, opens up to academics interested in understanding sport and particularly fandom. In a way, we can argue that social media is the new pub where complete strangers sit together, share some thoughts on the game, celebrate or criticise their teams and players, and then after the game they would go in their own ways to become one more time strangers. But what would happen over the entire period of the World Cup? Would those same fans meet together again? Would we be able to see strong ties being formed over time? Or does social media just promote weak ties amongst those football fans?