I can’t even remember how it started. Perhaps the vast slogan on the construction site I walked past every day on my way to work – “be the change you want to see in the world” – had subconsciously struck a chord. I’m sure Gandhi was referring to loftier pursuits than the enhancement of a lower-league football club’s online presence, but we all have to start somewhere.
I’ve been a fan of Torquay United, my local team, since childhood but as an adult I found myself spending an ever-diminishing proportion of my time in Devon. Unwilling to shift my allegiance to a conveniently proximate club, I often found myself combing the internet for live match updates. However, unless you support one of the bigger teams, you’re unlikely to find much beyond an auto-generated information feed; certainly nothing to channel the drama and excitement of a match as it unfolds.
While I understood the economic rationale for this imbalance, it still didn’t sit well with me. Earlier this season, The Guardian‘s ‘Secret Footballer’ column articulated the point very well:
“[some] clubs may be richer than others, they may have more fans and silverware but one thing that they should never have is more importance”.
The core of this message doesn’t just apply to football: any worthy enterprise irrespective of its commercial merits will have stakeholders who, in the internet age where barriers to communication have all but disappeared, deserve to be connected to the things they care about.
Purely on a whim, I decided to see if I could do something about this. I was due to visit a friend who’d moved to Newcastle and he’d suggested that we time it around Torquay’s match at Darlington.
I knew about Twitter and how it worked but had always been sceptical about it, simply because I struggled to imagine what I could possibly write that other people would want to read. Well, now I had something that I knew I’d want to read, and I reasoned that I had very little to lose in discovering whether others would feel the same.
Once I’d decided to go ahead with ‘the experiment’, it took me a while to settle on a username. At the time I was living in Greenwich and Torquay’s nickname is the Gulls, so I let lazy alliteration take its course and combined the two.
When I sat down in that chilly Darlington stadium and hammered out those first tentative tweets, I didn’t know the first thing about building a following or promoting my work. To be honest, I hadn’t really thought about it in those terms.
Establishing myself was slow going at first, but gradually I discovered other tweeters and bloggers whose output I found interesting and started interacting with them. I tweeted questions to opposing teams’ fans and solicited feedback from those with more experience. I also looked at who they were following and talking to in order to find discussions I might be missing out on, and before long I had a nascent network going.
I went to as many matches as I could, timing visits to my family in Devon around our home games while London’s transport links allowed me to get to a respectable proportion of away fixtures. When I couldn’t make it to matches in person my computer became a nerve centre where I’d piece together information from the live audio commentary stream with data feeds from our game and others.
After the initial novelty had subsided, I realised that I was really enjoying myself. My match experiences had become a lot more intense as I was having to relay information on the progress of the game in real time, which forced me to concentrate intensely on what was going on and pay attention to things that I hadn’t really noticed before. I found that it enhanced my performance at work too, as Twitter’s immediacy and 140-character limit had trained me to construct succinct sentences at speed. As my follower count grew and the positive feedback kept coming in, the sense of achievement was a powerful motivator to keep going, developing and innovating.
However the most rewarding thing of all was helping other Torquay ‘exiles’ to connect with their club and adding a narrative layer to their match experience.
Then, when I thought I was beginning to exhaust the possibilities that my experimental hobby could provide, things started to get really interesting.
I work for KPMG, a firm that lists passion among the five attributes it looks to cultivate in its employees. In late 2011 they decided to embark on a viral advertising campaign with a difference: identify staff who used their passion outside of their day job and make a series of short films about them. They enlisted a production company called Fletcher Wilson to make the films, and it was through them that I first heard about the project.
Would I like to be in a ‘viral ad’, the cheerful voice on the phone enquired. I rolled my eyes at the thought – the very concept of ‘viral’ seemed to embody an almost unintentional aspect, and all the attempts I’d seen by companies to create them had looked at best cynical and at worst a brand-damaging aberration.
Still, I thought, no harm in going along to talk to them; after all there’s no obligation to take this any further. Sitting down in front of a camera with a bright light shining at my face wasn’t the most auspicious start, but they asked smart, perceptive questions and surprisingly I found myself almost unable to stop talking about what I did, why I did it and what I got out of it.
On the day of filming, rather than being greeted by a couple of scruffy guys with a camcorder, a crew of seven arrived, armed with an achingly modern and expensive camera and a bewildering array of mysterious machines at whose purpose I could only speculate.
The club themselves were fantastically accommodating. I have to mention their Media Officer, Tim Herbert, who went out of his way on what was already a busy evening for him to get us everything we needed. You want Ben to walk on the pitch? Sit in the dugout? Chat to the manager and players? No problem – with minimal fuss, a slew of my childhood ambitions were realised in a single evening. In addition, I gained a fascinating insight into the film-making process, the planning and improvisation required of a director and the technical skills of the crew.
When I saw the film for the first time a few months later I was amazed. Full HD, nearly seven minutes long, stuffed full of special effects and seamlessly edited. Within a month it’d had over 60,000 hits and my Twitter timeline was getting swamped with positive messages.
Click the link below to see the video:
Despite always having a respectable number of interests, it had always frustrated me that I didn’t have a proper ‘hobby’: an absorbing and productive interest that I could lose myself in. Through social media I unexpectedly found a way to channel one of my passions into something both enjoyable and valuable for me and to other people. There’s so much inspiration and support out there, and finding it is getting easier all the time. I’m really excited about how online football coverage will continue to evolve and I’m thrilled to be a part of it.
What has all this taught me about social media? Definitely that there’s no excuse not to take something you care about, jump in and start sharing, but it boils down to something even simpler than that. We’re incredibly lucky to have a tool as powerful as the internet and you can get so much from it with very little effort, but before you can start to transform your world, you have to engage.
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