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To The Twitter End

With the FA's recent attempt to clamp down on footballers and their social networking, Dan Williams, talked to top journalist and twitterer Iain Macintosh to look at how the likes of Twitter are changing football for the better, and perhaps for the worst... Oh, and if you like this article, why not retweet it? Or share it on Facebook? That is of course unless you're a footballer!

Football is changing, and whether that is a good thing or not is irrelevant, as it is definitely in transition.

Perhaps, in some ways, it is returning to the world that football fans used to live in, where players were approachable and weren’t surrounded by a forcefield of PR, agents and club staff making sure that they don’t say anything wrong, or pull a muscle changing a lightbulb.

Although as Sunderland fans, we arguably know better than a lot of clubs that money is taking over the sport that we love, perhaps it is about time that the players gave something back, and thanks to social networking, and in particular, Twitter, they are. Whether however, this is a good thing, is a matter of opinion.

We were all thrilled when Darren Bent vented his frustration at Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy in an attempt to push through his move to the North East, and we were equally impressed when he tweeted about his supposed love for the area, but as ever, there are two sides to every story. As soon as he chased the pound sign to Aston Villa, the regular ‘twit’ suddenly lost his voice.

The site was also in the news when Ryan Babel retweeted a picture of Howard Webb in a Manchester United shirt, while Jack Wilshere escaped punishment for slagging off a ref in a recent Arsenal game. The FA have, however, decided to take a stand against players, and new regulations state that ‘any comments which are deemed improper, bring the game into disrepute, or are threatening, abusive, indecent or insulting may lead to disciplinary action.

Comments which are personal in nature or could be construed as offensive, use foul language or contain direct or indirect threats aimed at other participants are likely to be considered improper.’

With the game taking such an interest in Twitter, I talked to journalist and regular of the Three Up Front podcast Iain Macintosh to gather an insider’s view on how things are changing, both for players, and journalists...

As a journalist, Twitter gives people the chance to voice an instant opinion on your work, is that a positive thing?

Iain: "Ha ha! It depends on the opinion! Personally, I like the accountability. I like the fact that people can call you on your writing. It keeps you on your toes and stops you taking shortcuts. You have to grow a thick skin very quickly though. Write something contentious and you'll have a steady stream of complete strangers lining up to call you The Bad Word all afternoon. It's not all nasty though. Write something that strikes a chord and you'll find a whole new audience. There's nothing quite like the glow you get when you see your article being retweeted around the world."

As we know from profiles such as In Bed With Maradona - Twitter has opened the door for a lot more people to get their work seen... Is there a danger that there is now too much opportunity? And we will get overrun by it?

Iain: "Not at all. Twitter is meritocratic and it always will be. If you like it, you'll RT it. If you don't, you'll ignore it. If you like the writer, you'll follow them. If you don't, you'll ignore them. People talk about 'background chatter', but Twitter is fully customisable. You have to opt-in to see things. It's a wonderful chance for people from non-traditional backgrounds to have their writing read."

Could Twitter eventually have an impact on newspaper sales? Especially in reference to sport?

Iain: "Perhaps, but only as an extension of the impact that the internet has had. It just makes it easier to find good material online. Personally, I still prefer to read a paper in the morning, but habits are changing. You can see from the way that The Times and The Guardian have embraced Twitter that it's wiser to work within the new system than to ignore it."

And on a similar theme, could it replace traditional football forums for debate?

"No, I think they'll survive. I don't know about anyone else, but I need more than 140 characters to rant about my team. Twitter can help to bring fans together. My club's forum, ShrimperZone, has a Twitter presence and it can help to bring new supporters into the fold."

I got in touch with Darren Bent over Twitter, but got a stern telling off from the club when I checked if I was ok to talk to him. Is it really a 'gateway to the stars', or is it actually a gateway to the star's censors?

Iain: "Well that depends on the star. Some are happy to talk, some prefer to stay private. Some aren't even doing it all, they've got other people tweeting for them. It's a bit like the early days of footballer's websites. When they started popping up all over the place, it was unprecedented access. Then a few players said a few silly things and the clubs tried to clamp down on it all. Sunderland actually banned them altogether. We may already have passed through the golden innocence of Twitter."

As you recently discussed in the TUF podcast, Twitter is changing the reputation of some players, but can they actually be themselves and honest?

Iain: "There's no hiding place on Twitter. The more you tweet, the more your real personality reveals itself. I sit there cringing when I see some footballers unleashing their misplaced arrogance on the world. Some of them need to remember that being paid 50k a week to play a game is rather a nice way to earn a living, not a chore. If I see one more footballer tweeting, "Urgh, early start for training. I hate mornings," I think I'll cry. Try waking up early to go and work at McDonalds. Anyway, some players come across really well. Rio Ferdiand being a case in point."

Did you agree with Babel and Wiltshire coming under the spotlight for their comments? Should they be free to say anything that they like, or does there have to be a line drawn?

Iain: "No-one's free to say anything in society, but it's just a question of being careful. Babel's tweet didn't just sail dangerously close to defamation, but it was incredibly disrespectful as well. I doubt he'd have thought it was all so amusing if Howard Webb forwarded a picture of a donkey in a Babel shirt. Wilshere's tweet was equally unwise. Footballers have to realise that journalists are watching them all the time. If you wouldn't say it in a mixed zone, don't say it on Twitter."

Darren Bent's rant at Daniel Levy was the first instance of a player 'forcing a move' through Twitter. Can we expect more of this in the future?

Iain: "No, I think players are slowly wising up. There will be the odd maverick going 'broken arrow', but it won't be long before Twitter Etiquette is taught at football academies across the country."

Obviously players won't slag off teammates, bosses etc, as a journalist, are you always aware that someone important may be reading? And do you therefore have to censor yourself?

Iain: "I try not tweet anything that I wouldn't put my name to in the paper, but I slip up from time to time. Fortunately, I'm not in the least bit famous or interesting so it doesn't matter, but it's a good habit to get into. One morning a couple of months ago, I picked up the papers and saw that Jordan was all over the front of them. Ratty and tired, I sent an particularly spiteful 7am tweet saying that no-one liked Jordan, no-one fancied her and no-one wanted to read about her. It was retweeted over 150 times. I felt awful. What if she'd read that? We all need to self-censor to a certain extent, otherwise it just becomes a nasty place to spend your time."

And finally... Is Twitter a fad, or is it the future? Will we only be talking in 140 characters from now on?

"It's a part of the future and it will be for as long as it's useful. We still use telephones, we still text each other, they weren't fads. Until something more convenient comes along, Twitter will be another medium for communciation."

Ian can be followed at @iainmacintosh and can be heard on a weekly basis on the Three Up Front podcast @threeupfront.

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