As the third decade of football’s digitally driven global boom approaches there are a great many things that look, if not broken beyond repair, then at least in need of a vigorous reconditioning. The breakdown of the relationship between fans and players was one of the tragedies of the atomised modern game. But against all expectations it has been Twitter – the most laconic, celebrity-driven and, for many, gallopingly inane of the social networking media – that has begun to hurl the odd significant grappling hook across the divide.
Twitter and football: at first it looked like a fling, perhaps even a slightly troubled affair. Finally, and with a notable upsurge in the past few weeks, it seems to have become a permanent splicing together. Initially Twitter had promised to become a mere numerical phenomenon: the towering worldwide followings racked up by the likes of Shaquille O’Neal (3.7 million followers) seemed to stand simply as a testament to the magnetism of sporting celebrity. In the Premier League Twitter is perhaps becoming something else. There is increasingly a sense of rawness to the interaction between players, fans and media. In the most carefully insulated of major sports, Twitter seems to be altering subtly the established dynamic. It is not perhaps yet a tipping point to rank alongside the great staging points in the ascent of the modern superstar footballer, but Twitter is doing one thing: giving players a voice again, unmuzzled by the marketing structures of the plc club. Even crammed into 140 grammatically promiscuous characters, suddenly footballers look a little more likable, a little less remote.
There will continue to be casualties. When Arsène Wenger was asked on Thursday if he objected to his Arsenal players using Twitter he stopped some way short of an endorsement. “It can be very good and very bad. If it can be a positive image of the club [that's OK], it also can be bad,” Wenger said, dismissing the idea that he may make a virtual appearance himself with a wry smile.
Perhaps he had in mind the experience of the Manchester United midfielder Darron Gibson. Introduced to Twitter on Monday morning, by midday Gibson had 12,000 followers. Half an hour later he shut down his account for good, stung by the spume of venom from both his own club’s supporters (”team do all hard work keeping possession then u hit row Z every fuckin time!!”) and those of Northern Ireland, whose advances he turned down in favour of the Republic. On Thursday Danny Gabbidon became the latest player to be charged by the FA over a Tweet aimed at his own side’s fans after defeat by Bolton (specifically: “U know what, fuck the lot of you, u will never get another tweet from me again, you just don’t get it do you. Bye bye”).
The Notts County manager, Martin Allen, is another recent high-profile football Twitter casualty. “I just had to stop,” Allen says. “Twitter was fine while I was working in the media and marketing my company X Factor football, but when I left Barnet [two weeks ago] things moved to another level. I got Tweets saying ‘I hope you get CANCER’ and ‘Who wants to come to the party when Martin Allen dies’. I started off really open on Twitter. I’d always follow people back. I had 10,000 followers and I used to enjoy it. But there was just no point putting myself through that.”
So far, so football. But there have been successes too. Aside from his fine form on the pitch, Wayne Rooney’s most significant stride towards reputation-rehabilitation may prove to have been his decision to open a Twitter account. A week later he has close to 320,000 followers and has come across well: relaxed, surprisingly wry, and refreshingly distinct from the angry, smudged, alienated figure glimpsed from afar. This has also been a positive for United, for whom a healing of the distance between Rooney and the club’s fans will be a further balm on the agitation of early season.
“Greater contact with the public can be a good thing if you’re not being perceived in the right way,” says Max Clifford, PR guru to the stars. “Wayne Rooney’s the proof of that. If I was doing public relations for Manchester United I would be delighted he was showing himself to be different to the way he’s perceived. This is his best way to show what he’s really like.
“Twitter makes players more up to speed with what people are saying. They can respond to that instantly. It also gives them freedom to respond to stories in the newspapers. It’s almost impossible to get a tabloid to print an apology or a retraction for a story that’s a load of rubbish. Because of the vast amounts of people using Twitter players can now respond straight away, and if they’re clever even name the journalist responsible.”
Clifford points to Rio Ferdinand as an example of how to master the medium. “Rio Ferdinand is older, more mature and he’s looking to his own future career. He understands the importance of popularity as a marketing tool.”
And what a ferociously territorial marketing tool it is. In the most recent all-comer Twitter-rankings O’Neal continues to top the tree in sport. Behind him Kaká is the highest-ranked footballer at No32 in the world with 3.5 million followers. Ronaldo is at No56 with 2.5 million (more than Bill Gates and Stephen Fry; a little fewer than Soulja Boy and Ricky Martin). Scrolling down past Fearne Cotton (No177, gaining fast on the Dalai Lama) you meet Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Diego Forlán and finally get to the Premier League’s top dog, Ferdinand, steady on 849,000 and No462 in the world, just below Kelly Osbourne. Cesc Fábregas is his next closest Premier League challenger, followed by Jack Wilshere with 460,000 followers, just ahead of Sesame Street.
Glimpsed in the context of this rampaging global celebrity nexus, the clubs’ desire to take charge of the public utterances of their star players starts to look, not just doomed to fail, but also a little outmoded. Naturally, most have now introduced a Twitter protocol for players. “Our policy is we allow payers to use Twitter with common sense,” says Wendy Taylor, Newcastle United’s head of media. “There are subjects we ask them not to tweet about. Team news and injury news should be confidential. Also we ask them not to make negative comments about players, managers, officials, or the FA.” Newcastle have already been stung this way: in January José Enrique revealed that he would miss the following day’s game against Tottenham with injury: to the exasperation of Alan Pardew, who had intended to keep his team a secret.
There has been a widespread perception that Twitter is entirely a media phenomenon; that it is the media, talking mainly to themselves, that harbour the most excitement about this new source of snippets from the table. But Twitter is about a little more than simply sourcing stories; it may even make them a little more interesting to read. The most high-profile media-football exchange to date was the impromptu Twitter interview conducted by the Daily Mirror sports writer Oliver Holt with Michael Owen after Owen had played for Manchester United at Newcastle. After a forthright exchange of views player and writer seemed to agree on one thing: the relationship between newspapers and footballers is deadlocked in a cycle of mistrust and animosity.
There is much to dislike about the current set-up for interacting with footballers: the sponsorial nudges, the time limits, the shared foraging for scraps. It is hard to decide who the real loser is in this communally erected corporate boredom, although it is hard to disagree with Owen’s conclusion that “the people who suffer are fans”. By the same token, it is football supporters who stand to gain most from Twitter – which has already begun to prick the skin of the sealed media bubble and allow some unconditioned air to flood in.
There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest the younger generation of Twitter-smart fans do not share the sense of alienation from players felt by many of the older Premier League-era supporters. Why would they when the intimate personal thoughts of half the Arsenal first team are available unfiltered and fed directly to their screen? Twitter may be an irritation for some. It may be, by turns, mundane, groupie-ish and infused with sudden swirling weather fronts of venom. But if it can continue to give the players back to the fans, even just a little bit, it will surely have achieved something significant.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010
The news that, according to the national security review at least, cyber attack comes second only to terrorism as the gravest security threat facing the nation will have come as a great surprise to most citizens. We are conscious of the annoyances of malware, viruses, worms, spam and phishing, but for most these are just minor irritations, not threats to the nation’s survival.
Yet the other day we had the foreign secretary gravely intoning why, in the midst of the most savage spending cuts in living memory, it is suddenly necessary to give an extra £500m to GCHQ to protect us against nemesis in cyberspace. At the same time, in America, we see the Pentagon setting up a whole new cyber command, USCybercom, with all the usual paraphernalia and awash with funding.
What, you might ask, is going on?
There seem to be two broad answers to the question. The cynical one is that this is just the latest development of the military-industrial complex that is the bane of industrialised economies. Changes in society and warfare patterns threaten the future prosperity of this colossal set of vested interests.
Aircraft carriers, missile systems and tanks are of little use against ragged-trousered terrorists and so a new and sinister threat has to be manufactured to ensure reliable cash-flow for BAE Systems & co into the next century. In which case, cyber security will do nicely.
And, say the cynics, the strategy is succeeding. According to the New Yorker journalist Seymour Hersh, the military-industrial complex in the US has morphed into “a military-cyber complex”. Hersh says that the US government spends between bn and bn annually for unclassified cyber-security work and about the same on the classified part.
The alternative explanation is that the threat really is more serious than many of us had supposed. The arrival of the Stuxnet worm was a salutary event because of its sophistication and the fact that it targeted a device that plays a critical role in innumerable industrial processes. Could it be that the threat truly has ratcheted up? Is there a real threat of “cyber warfare”? If so, what could be done about it?
At a seminar in Cambridge last week, Dr Herbert Lin of the National Academies of the USA gave a sobering overview of the challenges posed by conflict in cyberspace. The central problem is that, in the online domain, the attacker has most of the advantages. Passive defences (better firewalls, anti-virus precautions etc) can have some effect, but they’re never going to deter or prevent determined or sophisticated attacks.
So what does a nation do?
One answer is to seek lessons from the policy of nuclear deterrence. Many policy-makers see cyber deterrence as the only feasible policy in an offence-dominated domain. After all, we have lots of experience with nuclear deterrence and we know it worked. So maybe that’s the way to go?
Alas, no. As Dr Lin put it, while nuclear and cyber deterrence raise the same questions, the answers are different and much less satisfactory in the online case. Deterrence is a tool for dissuading an adversary from taking hostile action, but it depends on being able to identify the potential attacker. Nuclear deterrence worked for various reasons: only nation-states were potential adversaries; attacks would have been easy to detect and would have come from outside one’s territorial boundaries. It was possible to demonstrate that one possessed the capability for devastating retaliation and it would have been easy to determine when hostilities had ceased.
None of this applies in cyberspace. The resources to mount attacks are not the sole prerogative of nation-states. It may be difficult to distinguish an attack from incessant malware and cybercrime. Identifying the source of an attack can be problematic and an astute attacker might leave a false trail leading to a country that would regard massive retaliation as an act of war. There’s no obvious way of demonstrating a capability for retaliation. There’s no precedent for countries targeting nuclear strikes on companies. And there’s no obvious way of establishing that hostilities have definitively ceased.
The inescapable conclusion is that deterrence won’t work in cyberspace. We need a better idea. The £500m we’ve just donated to GCHQ suggests that it won’t come cheap.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010
Recently a man bought a space station for 0,000, while last month Small Planet Foods, a subsidiary of General Foods, introduced a new brand of organic blueberries. What have these two products got in common? Neither actually exist. Well, not except as pixels in the virtual worlds where they are traded. Only the money is real.
The space station was sold in the virtual world Entropia Universe, which has its own economy and currency. The buyer, who converted his 0,000 into 3.3m PED (Project Entropia dollars), is convinced that virtual shops on his virtual space station will produce virtual profits that can be converted back into real dollars. The blueberries represent a "brand extension" of a product that exists in the real world as US company General Foods aims to establish a presence in FarmVille, a game which exists as an application on Facebook and which at its peak has had nearly 80 million players. It is a classic example of a new genre.
Farmers in FarmVille buy cartoon-like virtual farm animals, which have to be regularly fed, or crops that require fertiliser (virtual, of course) to help them grow, in order to be more successful than their friends. The real-time game has its own virtual currency that makes it easier for members to trade and for the game’s makers to profit. Parent company Zynga has revenues of more than 0m a year which come mainly from FarmVille, despite competition from half a dozen other farm games on Facebook. Zynga is reckoned to be worth between bn and bn, based on the value of investment stakes that have been taken in it.
To many, this seems crazy: why spend real money to buy a virtual currency to purchase food in order to stop a pig that doesn’t exist from dying through lack of food? The easy answer is why not – if that’s what you want to do. It is arguably a lot more "real" – whatever that means these days – than, say, sitting like a couch potato watching a soap on television.
This might still seem the stuff of fantasy but it’s where real life seems to be heading: according to some analysts, we are in the midst of a virtual revolution that might one day be considered as important as the industrial revolution. Nic Mitham, founder of KZero, a Cambridge-based consultancy, says that there are 175 virtual worlds that are live or in live beta and that the number of registered users to them has risen from 880 million in the fourth quarter of 2009 to 1.1 billion today, a 25% increase within six months in the middle of a recession. The registered population of virtual worlds (even if this is not the same as active users) is greater than the populations of the US and Europe combined.
Children are already, and perhaps inevitably, very familiar with all this. Habbo Hotel, a virtual world where teenagers trade goods and clothes, has increased the number of its registered residents to 175 million from 160 million a year ago and the London-based Moshi Monsters, a sub-teen world where kids meet and trade virtual goods with each other now has 20 million members compared with 12 million at the end of last year.
Meanwhile, going in the opposite direction to General Foods, Moshi Monsters recently announced that the branded goods it has developed within its virtual world are to be sold in the real world, an example of something else we will have to get used to: a convergence of real and virtual products.
Little wonder that Will Walsh, CEO of Sharpcards, which creates virtual cards for people to send to each other from their mobiles, believes "there will be a time in the future when kids spend more money in certain areas on virtual goods than they do in the real world."
Second Life, where you can choose your own avatar, build your own house and buy and sell clothing, is still the best-known virtual world in this country. Launched in 2003, it claims up to 20 million registered users, although only about 1.4 million have been active in the past 60 days. For some it’s been a rocky road: its San Diego-born creator Philip Rosedale stepped down as CEO in 2008, but is now back in charge following recent redundancies at developers Linden Lab.
The latest published figures claim that virtual transactions (sales of land, clothes and artefacts) in Second Life came to 0m last year and that the volume of user-to-user transactions (selling each other clothes, furniture and land) rose between April and May this year from .9m to .6m. However, it would be surprising if this growth were maintained in view of Second Life’s managerial problems and a sharp decline in the value of land within the virtual world. Casual visitors are arriving in fewer numbers and long-term residents seem increasingly to keep themselves to themselves – focusing on niche educational projects, virtual business meetings, sex or art.
I joined Second Life five years ago and, with the help of a neighbour there, set up an art gallery. To begin with, I displayed other people’s artworks before – after I realised that the game’s tools enable anyone to transform creative ideas into (virtual) paintings or sculptures without formal training – showing off works of my own.
My neighbour Juanita Deharo (her SL identity – in real life she is Judy Barrass and lives in Australia) now produces artworks that bridge the real and virtual worlds. But citing falling sales of her work because of problems there, she has thought about leaving Second Life. "There are signs the community is on the move into other virtual worlds," she says.
Other virtual worlds? Competing with Second Life now are several similar online communities, including OpenLife, Blue Mars and Inworldz. The former bills itself an an open-source alternative grid for Second Life, set up in Australia in 2007, "to create a user content created virtual world orientated towards users, affordable ownership and community".
Blue Mars is more restrictive than Second Life in terms of allowing its users to make their own content, but this 3D virtual world platform (developed in Hawaii by a company called Avatar Reality) has let more than 200 developers – mostly individuals or indie game designers – loose on creating cities, games and 3D environments on a terraformed version of Mars. Opened to the public in September 2009, and still in beta testing, it promises users better graphics and a more streamlined experience as a result. Blue Mars further differs from Second Life in that avatars cannot be fully customised and the emphasis is on shopping and gaming rather than social interaction.
Nonetheless, successful (virtual) fashion designer Estelle Parnall is taking her business away from Second Life into Blue Mars. "Everything will be better, once the content gets created," she says. "The graphics, and in particular avatar appearance and clothing, are of a much higher standard than could be reproduced in SL and in virtual platforms relying on social engagement, this is of paramount importance."
For Juanita Deharo, "what keeps me in Second Life is the international community of artists, audience and curators, and these new grids can’t match the diversity, stability, performance and security of SL at this stage." She acknowledges none the less that "the scene is changing rapidly".
The growth in virtual worlds for children is also continuing. Last month, for instance, saw the launch of Innerstar University, created by a US toy company, in which pre-teens can create doll avatars to navigate the campus of a virtual university, earning stars by competing cheerleading or horseriding games that can then be redeemed for pets or a haircut.
Closed virtual worlds dedicated to business or education are also flourishing. Based in Florida and Boston, ReactionGrid was founded by three Second Life programmers in January 2009. They build bespoke virtual worlds for business clients (including Microsoft and a number of universities) – usually as a "fun" way of facilitating business tutorials, such as an interactive arcade version of a PowerPoint-like presentation. Worlds created include classrooms, campuses, and bar lounges.
Side by side with the trend to build escapist worlds such as these is a dash to construct 3D reproductions of actual places in the real world in the hope of attracting people to buy goods and entertain themselves without an irksome journey to town. There is a virtual London in Second Life, with a 40,000-strong community, which according to its founder Debs Regent (or Debs Butler, as she is known offline) made a small profit last month, mainly from renting out shops and clubs. But at least five virtual versions of the capital have been built or are in the throes of construction by companies such as Twinity, NearGlobal and Microsoft, as well as by University College, London.
Vistors to Twinity can also enjoy virtual replicas of Berlin, Singapore and Miami. Earlier this month, the company hosted a virtual barbecue in (its recreation of) South Beach, Miami, while in a game of one-upmanship with the mayor of London, the company’s vehicle engineers have just built a (virtual) motorcycle that lets visitors tour the cities (without ever being required to wear a helmet).
For sheer ambition all these projects are dwarfed by Project X, the brainchild of Mike Fotoohi from Egham, Surrey, who intends to reproduce the entire planet as a virtual world in which members will be able to build replicas of their homes on the same street as in real life. Project X is still in closed beta and at the moment Fotoohi and his team have only finished building central New York and a few other places, but after merging the open source Openstreetmap – a free and open source editable map of the world – with publicly available satellite image mapping from the US government to produce a 3D skeleton of practically every road on the planet, users will be invited to take over the planet.
Fotoohi and his colleagues believe that virtual worlds – in which social media will integrate with a three dimensional web – have a great future. "We have only scratched the surface," he says. "As bandwidth increases and technologies like ray tracing [simulating 3D effects] and video delivery become more realistic thanks to increasing processing power and faster connections then we will have worlds that will look very real in the future.
"Project X is the initial phase of what I believe will be the next generation of how people will use the internet."
One feature being developed using mobile technology aims to synch the virtual and the real worlds – so that your avatar in a virtual world will follow you in real life wherever you go. "Shopkeepers who advertise their products in our virtual world can actually see customers attracted to their store as a result of that advert," says Fotoohi. "This is something that has never been done before and for the first time you can measure accurately the pounds and dollars that you spend. The person who uses this system will also get a revenue share, which is great for the consumer and advertiser."
The early virtual worlds, most of which have been grossly underperforming for their investors, according to Nic Mitham at KZero, found it difficult to establish their virtual brands in real life. Mitham now sees two trends. First, virtual worlds are changing from levying monthly subscriptions to charging small amounts for virtual goods, a practice made popular by FarmVille. The second driver, he says, is brands creating their own virtual worlds to sell their products. Virtual goods that carry real-life brands, Mitham says, have 10 times the buying power of virtual brands.
How big is the virtual revolution? Factor in games like FarmVille, massively multiplayer online games such as Entropia Universe and World of Warcraft and other virtual services and it is a case of pick your own number. Some unofficial estimates claim that virtual products are worth bn in the US and bn in Asia. This is a woeful underestimate since one part of Facebook, FarmVille, may soon be worth a billion and it is already capitalised at more than bn. In the future, too, the mobile phone, is likely to be a major incubator of virtual products.
FarmVille may one day be seen as a milestone in accustomising non-geeks to the idea of online currencies and virtual products. Virtual products have a particular attraction to businesses because beyond the cost infrastructure already in place, overheads are few and manufacturing costs zero. Carbon footprints become less of a concern, too. And in a recession, virtual worlds offer their colonists the chance of a cheap escape from everyday reality.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010