The recent explosion in football writing appears to have been fueled in no small part by the acceleration in use and availability of social media, both as a platform for debate and as a means of dissemination.
But what does that mean for the men and women trying to use it? I spoke to a number of football writers about their experiences of using social media and what, if anything, they feel they get from it. I spoke to two established and internationally recognized newspaper journalists, a freelance journalist who writes about football alongside a professional writing career in a different field, and a number of bloggers, one of whom also hosts a podcast. Here are their insights:
My Brand, Not a Brand
The key development is clearly the opportunity for writers to self-brand, not beholden to whomever publishes them. As one leading newspaper writer states: "To an extent it's freed freelancers from big titles in that, up to a point, the writer becomes the brand rather than the paper." This is impossible these days without social, as a blogger points out: "It was very obvious that to build a 'reader' base I would need Twitter." As another blogger puts it: "If you write on the web then you want your work to be seen. Social media is the best tool for the job".
The podcast host recognizes social's capacity to direct people to content they want as a branding opportunity: "As every writer is essentially selling their work, then social media's labeling and categorizing presents itself only as a positive in a professional capacity."
However, a writer needs to be careful about trying to push beyond organic growth in their brand: "If you try too hard to 'build a brand' then it just looks stupid", as another national journalist puts it.
Social media can assist anyone who wants to get out there and start writing to do just that, as another blogger states: "Starting to write again was completely influenced by social media... seeing the ease in which I could read articles on any subject at anytime in any place made me believe that I had a hassle free way of publishing and promoting my articles." Seeing it work for other people can motivate anyone and one blogger says that his participation in social has "inspired [me] to write more and more expansively." As a national journalist succinctly puts it, "Basically it's opened everything up".
Engage to Improve
All the people I spoke to highlighted benefits from engagement. Some had formed contacts and friendships via social, and most explicitly stated that exposure to more material had improved their own writing: "More people are exposed to others' work and are inspired by it," as a blogger puts it. The opportunities afforded by publicity and sharing also push the quality threshold, according to a national journalist: "[Social media] means independent sites have more chance of a sustained readership, and therefore put more effort in." He goes on to say that social has improved football writing "more by the connections that it's made rather than the medium itself -- it allows everyone to have a voice, and in that sense it's meritocratic."
Better Content, Sort Of
It's clear that social platforms have increased the amount of available writing, but as one blogger puts it, that's not always good: "For every new and good piece or writer that's out there, you get the writers and pieces of lower quality." But the ease of publishing means that good stuff which would not have been available previously now is, as the freelancer says: "Social media provides a forum for some very talented football writers to get their work out there and have it read, shared and commented on by lots of people." Also, the competition has focused writers, as the podcast host sees it: "Arguably, established writers have to constantly up their game as a result of the immediate and unending competition."
The plethora of people on social media means that there is a huge knowledge pool for writers to access. This can be in terms of specific information or contacts that can help with stories. A national journalist cites this "access to expertise in obscure areas" as an advantage to a social presence. As the freelancer puts it: "It's great for connecting people with common football interests, which can only enhance the quality of football writing."
Twitter, especially, can provoke pointless or even unpleasant debate, as a national journalist observes: "Twitter, by nature, is very reactionary... I think some people use it to find things to be appalled and offended about." There is also a danger that there is just too much out there, and much of it not worth reading, as the podcast host notes: "Social media has certainly saturated the football writing market, but it has little to do with the quality of the work, only with the exposure of that work." He goes on to observe that, in some ways, competition might entrench established brands rather than challenge them: "[Established writers] will often be safe in the knowledge that the market's saturation will see readers now sticking to what they know and trust."
It's clear, then, that writers now feel that social is an invaluable tool. It can help a writer establish their own brand, get exposure and feedback, develop contacts and access knowledge. It's changed the game for the better. If you're a good, impassioned writer, you can find in social the platform that will catapult you towards a wider readership and a growing reputation. But, and it is a big but, social can be both a shark tank and a wall of noise. You can suffer at the hands of detractors or simply be swallowed up in a sea of other writers. But if social teaches us one thing, it is to give it a go. Decide what you want to achieve and then chance your arm. You never know where it might take you.