Archive for September, 2008

Exeweb: a social media success story (before we even had social media)

My friend Steve deserves many hearty slaps on the back and no small amount of congratulations. Exeweb, the forum he created for Exeter City fans, recently celebrated its tenth birthday.

But this isn’t another Exeter City football post from me – Steve’s site is a perfect example of social media in action, and has been such years before the term social media was ever invented.

Going further, you could put forward a significant argument that Exeter City FC would not exist were it not for Exeweb. More of that in a minute.

One thing that is immediately striking about Exeweb is the sense of community on the message boards. There’s a familiarity between posters you don’t often find on forums. Indeed, many of Exeweb’s users know each other offline but got to know each other through Exeweb.

The site has enhanced the activity that brought them together in the first place – supporting Exeter City. Strangers have met up for drinks, shared lifts to away games and even formed their own football team out of it.

Ideas are exchanged and friendships are made, and for exiled fans, the forum is an invaluable resource. These are not geeks or early adopters – they’re just football fans coming together online to share their passion.

Last May, when Exeter made it to Wembley for the Blue Square Premier play-off final, a London-based Exeter fan, Alan Crockford, hired out a nearby pub specifically for Exeweb users and their families to meet and drink before the game. Many new friendships were formed on that day and created a sense of togetherness that wouldn’t have been present if the fans had scattered around assorted pubs.

But Exeweb has gone beyond adding to fans support of the club. It has, quite literally, helped save the club from ruin.

Five and a half years ago, the club was taken over by businessmen John Russell and Mike Lewis. The previous chairman, Ivor Doble, was in his 70s and looking to sell. Russell and Lewis came into town as the proverbial white knights.

Lewis had been involved at Swansea City, where he’d controversially sold the club to £1 to revilled owner Tony Petty. Such was the force of hatred towards Lewis in Swansea at the time that he couldn’t travel to away games at the Vetch without police protection.

Russell, meanwhile, had been chairman of Scarborough when they were relegated from the League. He also had a conviction for obtaining property by deception. Had the fit and proper owner test been in place at the time, it is unlikely he could have taken over the club.

But at the time the pair talked the talk and promised to take the club to new heights, as all owners do. Were it not for Exeweb, they would have taken the club to new lows.

A few months into their reign, certain Exeweb users – a couple of them local journalists – started noticing a few promises and claims from the pair didn’t add up.

Money promised from a chairty event that, bizarrely, saw Michael Jackson speak at the park hadn’t materialised, and a promotional shot that featured new manager Neil McNab had been taken BEFORE the previous manager, John Cornforth, had been sacked. These were just a small number of the strange stories coming out of St. James Park.

Slowly, but surely, more and more members of Exeweb came to realise Russell and Lewis weren’t exactly the saviours of the club and the site’s message boards started to contain closer scrutiny of the pair’s dealings – scrutiny that suggested the club was in serious financial problems.

At the same time, the club’s Supporters’ Trust had been slowly gaining momentum, again thanks to Exeweb. Originally set up to help the club find funds to purchase striker Gary Alexander, the Trust’s aims had changed to getting fan represntation on the board and ensuring the club survived the financial crisis.

Exeweb gave the Trust a much wider audience thanthe offline world could provide it. Some of the key players in the Trust had their passion for Exeter reawakened through Exeweb, or got to know each other through the site.

At the end of the season, Exeter were relegated from the League and the nowRussell and Lewis were arrested (and subsequently convicted a few years later) for fruad. Exeter City FC was in massive debts and Ivor Doble had neither the money nor the energy to help the club.

In stepped the Supporters’ Trust, with volunteers – many of them brought together through Exeweb – giving up their time to do everything possible to save the club. And they succeeded by the skin of their teeth.

The club was hours away from going into liquidation when the Trust managed to get together a deal for the creditors and ensure Exeter still had a professional football club.

Granted, Exeweb couldn’t take the credit for this. But many of the individuals who helped save the club in the weeks after Russell and Lewis’ arrest wouldn’t have got involved had it not been for Exeweb.

As Damien Mills aka Egg, Trust member and one of the earliest critics of Russell and Lewis said in a recent discussion about Exeweb:

“In the summer of 2003, a series of meetings took place at the Exeter Airport Business Park premises of Ian Huxham’s Potbury Signs. Those meetings were, IMHO, absolutely critical in securing Trust control of the club and, in turn, its very future.

I can’t pretend to speak for all those present, and readily admit my memory isn’t what it might be, but I’m fairly sure that some of the key players within that disparate group of people – think former directors Barry Sansom and Geoffrey Styles to name but two – were brought together by ExeWeb.

Certainly, Terry Pavey, who played a very significant role back then, would tell you his passion for the football club was reawakened by stumbling across ExeWeb while exiled in Kent. Moreover, I’m firmly of the opinion that Russell and Lewis might just have ‘got away with it’ were it not for the opposition to them which, to a large extent, grew out of the site.

In short, I think anyone with ‘a bit of Exeter City in their heart’ owes Steve a debt of gratitude – all the more so when you consider ExeWeb is a labour of love for which, it seems to me, he receives plenty of brickbats and nowhere near enough plaudits.”

The Trust is now the majority shareholder in Exeter City. The fans, in this case, really do own the club. I consider myself proud that I’m a shareholder in the club I love.

For all the talk surrounding internet football venture MyFootballClub.co.uk, it’s got nothing on Exeweb. Steve’s site may not own the club, but many members of Exeweb are shareholders. Moreover, it brought together the fans at the club’s darkest hour, and was able to quickly galvinise them into saving Exeter City FC.

Steve has maintained Exeweb largely with his own time and money, and the help of volunteer moderators. Over the years, he’s had a fair few angry calls from people at the club, annoyed at things that have been posted on the forums – although many at the club know how important the site is.

He’s even had offers to sell up. He refused, to ensure Exeter CIty fans could continue to have an independent voice.

Exeweb’s popularity has spread. It has its own fan page on Facebook and there’s plenty of Exeter City supporters who use Facebook as a supplement to Exeweb. As social media tools expand into the mainstream, expect Exewebbers to filter into them.

Steve probably never set out to create a perfect example of a powerful social media tool. He probably never even envisioned the role it would play in the club’s future when he first set it up. But achieved his aim to provide a place online for fans of the club to chat. And that’s expanded beyond his wildest explanations.

I’ll leave it to the man himself to sum things up:

“As it’s evolved over the years, news sterted to pop up on the forum before I could type it up and if there anything people don’t know, they ask and get answers and opinion. As a model of web usability, that is as damned near to perfect as you can get!

What I’m trying to say is that I think this site is unique. The fact it’s survived ten years is testament to all of you as much as it is me.”

Steve, the web and all Exeter City fans salute you.

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Harvest Twestival

I’ve long held that social media is a force for good and here’s a nice little illustration of this. Tonight sees the Harvest Twestival in a venue off Trafalgar Square.

But this goes beyond Twitter users simply getting to know each other – there’s a real conscience behind it.

All profits from the evening go towards The Connection at St Martin’s In The Field, which does sterling work with London’s homeless. Attendees have also been encouraged to bring along cans of food that will be donated to the soup kitchen.

It’s generated a real buzz on Twitter and shows how easy it is to get interest in these kind of events using Twitter. And it’s worth remembering that a lot of people on Twitter are likely to blog, Tweet, or use other forms of social media to spread the word.

Yes, it is also a party for us social media types – and a great way to make new contacts and friends – but it serves to illustrate just what can be achieved using such a simple social media tool. And that excites me.

Blogging breaking news

Who says blogs can’t break news? In an age where most footballer-penned blogs are full of bland commentary and meticulously on-message, Dean Windass’s post for his weekly ITV.com blog about considering his future at Hull if he didn’t get picked came as somewhat of a surprise. But it was also a great story, and one a journalism would usually have to work hard to get out of a player.

Unsurprisingly, it was the blogs who picked up on it first, before the local newspaper, the Daily Mail, the Vital Football Hull fan site and ESPN,all done with just a couple of emails alerting people to the story. AFter that, things snowballed.

Yes, the blog may have been hosted by a major media company, but the story, which started life on a small part of the site, quickly found its way around the internet and onto the fans forums. Just from one blog post. And the majority of stories credited the blog.

There’s news in them blogs alright – and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.

Sorry Marcel, I think you’re wrong

Marcel Berlins is one columnist I usually enjoy reading and have a lot of time for his views – they’re normally well-balanced and provide food for thought.

But his column this week – on the dangers of the internet and blogs – is most unlike him. It, strangely, feels ill-informed and pandering to the worst case scenario.

The basic gist is that anybody can say anything on blogs and, as we often don’t know the writers behind them, this makes them dangerous.

I take Marcel’s point about libel. As Nosemonkey said in a comment on this blog, it would probably be a good thing if a blogger was done for libel as this would help clarify a badly out of date law. The legal points, as you’d expect, are sound.

But then… well, it’s difficult to know how to describe it without taking the piece apart.

“An Estonian MEP, Marianne Mikko, is worried that a growing number of blogs are written with “malicious intentions or hidden agendas”. She proposes that bloggers identify themselves and declare any interests they have in the issue they’re writing about. Her concerns should be taken seriously. We, the readers of blogs, do not, and normally cannot, know who lurks behind the funny nickname. We need more information about the writers so that we can decide how seriously to take their opinions. Has she a personal stake in whatever it is under discussion? Does he belong to a dodgy or extreme campaigning body? Is she the sister of the owner of the restaurant she’s recommending? Does he bear a personal grudge? We don’t know.”

I’ve come across Marianne Mikko’s campaign before and think it’s possible one of the daftest things I’ve ever heard. How on earth you’d ever create some form of state regulation or registration for bloggers is utterly beyond me.

This only way, as far as I can see, that this would work would either be to get worldwide compliance on the issue, which is never going to happen, or to block certain sites or blogs, which would be unpalatable.

As somebody who spends a large amount of time in the blogosphere (yes, I should get out more), it’s reasonably easy to separate the crank blogs from the sensible ones. It doesn’t take too long to sift these.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that there are a large numbers of blogs and many of them have tiny readerships. The more successful a nuttier blog, the more attention and scrutiny it’s going to get.

I’ve always thought of blogging as an extension of Habermas’s idea of the public sphere mixed in with the basics o the free market. The best written, most accessible ones with clear aims and readerships and a sense of author tend to flourish while the small personal ones or nutty cranks remain within their small community. And I’d personally rather the nuttier cranks were posting this stuff in the open than conspiring in darkened rooms.

Where an author works hard to keep their anonymity, it’s usually for a good reason, like the Girl WIth a One Track Mind or PC Blogs. Often te profession blogs are the most fascinating. At best, blogs can illuminate and enlighten areas that usually remain locked to others and, I think, are a small step on further democratising society.

At worst, they read like the rants of a nutjob with deeply unpleasant views. And, again, I’d rather these kind of people had their views out in the open and were traceable.

Why blogs are any more dangerous than… well, anything is not made clear. Mostly they’re just people with opinions. Many of these opinions may be daft, unpleasant or plan pig-ignorant but that’s reflective of society.

“Coincidentally, last week, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the world wide web, confessed to his own worries about the way his invention was being used to dispense disinformation, conspiracy theories (that 9/11 was the work of the US government, for example) and harmful ideas. He particularly mentioned the spreading of the rumours that the MMR vaccine risked leading to autism in children.”

And again, the 9/11 stuff is, as far as I can tell, largely consigned to the corner of the web labelled nutjob. The day the conspiracy theories start becoming accepted truth is the day I hang up my wireless.

As for the MMR, that’s one thing the media cannot start claiming any kind of high ground over anywhere. It was bad science reporting that give more prominence to this issue than ever should have happened. t’s now largely accepted this wasn’t the media’s finest hour. The media gave a voice to the MMR scares, not the internet.

“For the moment, the advantages of allowing virtually unrestricted access to the net outweigh the undoubted negatives mentioned by Mikko and Berners-Lee. But what’s also clear is that more and more participants are abusing that freedom, whether as bloggers or on websites”

How are they abusing the freedom? By writing whatever they want to write? Why is that abusing freedom and who is it to decide what writings constitute abusing freedoms or not?

There are plenty of laws that extend to the internet (including libel – and the reason this is a bit woolly is hardly the fault of bloggers) and users are bound by them. If it’s serious enough to be considered a crime online, then it will usually be dealt with as such.

“We may soon have to consider devising controls on entry, though what form they’ll take is not easy to envisage. It is possible that we will find out, in five or 10 or 20 years, that, in the internet, we have created a monster we cannot tame, whose capacity for doing harm exceeds any good it once brought.”

Quite.

I still the internet as a force for good. It makes people and organisations more accountable and gives a voice to people who can’t normally be heard. If anything, I genuinely believe it has enhanced social interaction, democracy and society and speeded up the exchange of ideas. The thought of imposing rules and conditions on who can and cannot access the internet sends a chill down my spine.

Marcel may be pessimistic about the internet. Despite the large swathes of sheer uselessness, idiocy and downright unpleasantness that can be found online, I’m generally positive about the online world and feel it can be a force for good. Marcel, however, is far closer to those who make the law than I will ever be.

Just do it

Excellent post from Adam Tinworth on digital journalism:

“This should be an exciting time for journalists. Our ability to get to news, record it and share it with the world is higher than it’s ever been. So why are there do few people like Karl? Why do so many journalists regard the whole business as something to be challenged, ignored or even soundly mocked?


I think – and I’ve heard many others echo the same thought back to me – that we have to stop talking about wether these tools are more useful to journalists, and start using them to prove that they are.

The danger we’re in right now is that many of the people who are most conversant with these tools and who are the biggest evangelists for them end up getting pulled away from the reporting positions into central development functions. They stop doing, and start encouraging others to do. But I think we need more leading by example. And we need better documentation of good journalism done with new tools. “

He’s dead right. And the same goes for PR too. I spent a good deal of my time evangelising and showing others how to work these tools but there would be no substitute for sitting down and doing a fully-web intergrated piece of work that includes both traditional and new media.

There’s nothing like doing something in practice to open people’s eyes to the potential of new technologies.

The irony is earlier I was pinging a few emails back and forth on something I’ve been working on, and realised I’d completely missed a few chances to put what I preach into practice. Bad Gary. Next time… and that’s a promise.

The impetuousness of youth

The Emirates has long been on my list of stadiums to visit. There’s somebody about it that just looks like plenty of thought and grace has gone into the design. And, you know me, if there’s any sort of football being kicked about, chances are I’ll watch it. Hence, my attendance at Arsenal Youth Team v Sheffield United in The Competition Formerly Known As The Milk Cup tonight.

There was no time to admire the architecture at Ashburton Grove – a mix up with food in the pub beforehand and a painfully slow Piccadilly Line meant we were running late for kick-off, and with our seats on the top tier, about twelve minutes had already elapsed by the time we parked our backsides on the padded seats.

Yes, a football stadium with padded seats for the proles. You can tell they meant business. Not mean business, but more like business class airline business.

There was still plenty of time to admire the surroundings, however, as it transpired we’d missed absolutely bugger all, and for the next 15 minutes we proceeded to watch bugger all. Arsenal’s youngsters (average age 10. Probably. A least a handful were born after Italia ’90, which is just wrong by my book) stroked the ball around nicely but failed to walk the ball into the net, while Sheffield United looked to break on the counter but, despite (or because of) the presence of James Beattie up front, had no cutting edge.

So, while both teams engaged in a cagey opening, I took time to survey the stadium and was suitably impressed. Despite being back near the top, the view was still perfect, and there was plenty of space for legs, while still maintaining an intimate feel.

The whole place positively glimmers, with a sleek cleanliness that is a perfect design complement to Arsene Wenger’s style of football. You can only really take in the surroundings with a sense of awed hush, which probably explains why the place is so bloody quiet.

Going as a neutral to football matches is always a weird experience, but the atmosphere and noise generated by the fans usually drags me into caring about the game. Not so at Arsenal. Occasional pockets of noise sprung up and once or twice a few people stood up and tried to get a chant going, before being told to sit down. And for the rest of the time, I may as well have been watching a game of tennis or a mildly exciting game of chess.

Actually, make that a game of chess where every slightly iffy move is greeted with groans or, worse still, boos or profanity. Every time Arsenal made a mistake, which wasn’t a great deal, a mixture of all three rang out from around me. I’ve been to plenty of football games, and this was a first. The singing had been dispensed with all together and the crowd had moved straight into frustration.

On the half-hour mark there was finally something to lift the crowd, when Nicklas Bendtner, who had been the Gunners best player up to that point, fired a low shot from the edge of the area that squeezed past Paddy Kenny and put Arsenal one up.

It also stirred Sheffield United a little bit and they looked to respond immediately, but Wenger is no mug. He may have picked a side mostly consisting of teenagers, but in the centre of defence were Johann Djourou and Alex Song, who’ve a good deal of senior experience under their belts, and they succeeded in comfortably repelling any attacks from the Blades.

Ten minutes later Bendtner struck again following a lovely passing move across the pitch before (I think) Ramsey backheeled the back to the Danish striker, who looked suspiciously offside but tucked the ball away nonetheless.

That finally got the crowd going and we got the first and only proper mass chant of the night – Stand Up If You Hate Tottenham – and it was midway through this that Bendtner’s strike partner, Mexican teenager Carlos Vela, slipped through for a neat third goal to put the Gunners three up ten minutes before half time.

The interval was a slightly strange and very dull affair. Adverts beamed down from the screen, interspersed with the Arsenal equivalent of the National Lottery, as if I’d stumbled onto the set of a quaint daytime gameshow. With my companions off getting programmes, I checked on the Exeter Reserves score (2-0 up against Swindon’s second string) and waited quietly in my seat for the second half, as did the rest of the crowd. Had somebody started handing out tea in bone china, it would have felt quite natural.

The second half started in much the same fashion as the first left off. Arsenal’s youngsters, knowing they had a three goal cushion, relaxed and started playing some gloriously flowing football and soon enough the crowd were treated to a spectacular fourth when Vela flicked the ball passed two defenders before excuting a perfect lob over the advancing Paddy Kenny.

Soon after 16-year-old Jack Wilshere, who probably should have been getting ready for bed on a school night, made it five with a low drive from a corner and it really was game over.

The rest of the match played somewhat like a training ground exercise, with neat passing movements between the Arsenal players, while the Blades didn’t look overly inclined to both trying to salvage anything. Soon after the fifth goal, the Sheffield United supporters started a lengthy singsong and made more noise in the stadium than the home fans did all match.

There was time for Vela to complete a well-deserved and sublime hat-trick three minutes from time when he was put through by Aaron Ramsey and slid the ball past Kenny. It was no less than he, and Arsenal, deserved.

By this stage, though, a good 50% of the fans weren’t around to see the icing on the cake. With fifteen minutes to go, people started edging towards the exit and with about 8 minutes left on the clock, about half the seats around me were empty.

Coming away from the Emirates, my thoughts were firmly divided into two categories: the football and the rest of it.

On the pitch, Arsenal were simply breathtaking, despite many of the players having little or no first team experience and not being old enough to drink. Wenger has long specialised in being able to unearth young gems and he looks as if he’s got another team of potential stars.

Vela will get the headlines, and the player has plenty of natural talent, although still lacks an awareness of his team-mates around him on occasions. That will come with time. Bendtner, on the other hand, already had that intelligence after plenty of first team games and his reading of the game was a cut above his team-mates.

In midfield, Ramsey and Wilshere – with a combined age that’s only just over 30 – looked as if they’d been playing together for ten years, so assured were their performances. There was a real understanding between them, and a calmness and maturity to their play, offset by the fearlessness of youth. They were a joy to watch.

But… but… but… regular readers know my love for non-league football – the banter on the terraces, the joys of standing up close to the pitch and singing rude little ditties to the opposition goalkeeper, the atmosphere that comes from a hardy bunch banding together to watch their little team. The exact opposite of the Emirates.

And yet on my visit to White Hart Lane about six months ago, the atmosphere was electric from start to finish. Nobody sat down (sitting is an alien concept to me at football) and everybody sang for 90 minutes. Granted, that game was against Chelsea, while this was a League Cup game against lower opposition. But my Arsenal supporting housemate later told me that tonight’s atmosphere was louder than usual.

And its easy to see why. A plush, comfy new stadium combined with aesethically pleasing football and no real sense of sound, plus branded Arsenal goods at every glance and a slightly weird screaming at weird moments made the Emirates feel more like an American sporting event rather than a blood and thunder cup game between top dogs and plucky scrappers.

I have a lot of time for Arsene Wenger. Often he seems to be a lone voice of sense in the Premiership and I admire his steadfast commitment to building the club on strong, youthful foundations. In a lot of respects Arsenal are a model for any club.

But at the same time, the non-footballing side feels like everything I don’t want a club to turn into. Logo-centric, clean, sanitised sport served with a relaxed, smiling face. Had I ventured into the toilets, Arsenal-branded loo-roll holders and a bathroom attendant would have seemed normal.

Arsenal are a great club to watch. I could happily watch Wenger’s brand of football every week, but I couldn’t watch it there. It would drive me nuts. No jumping up and screaming, no non-stop singing, no banter, no witty spur-of-the-moment chants or comments. Just overly-expectant fans and polite applause. I can understand why Mike Ashley downed his pint now – sitting in such a sanitised environment would drive me to drink (more than I currently do).

At the risk of getting lynched by every part of North London, if you could combine the electric atmosphere at White Hart Lane with the football on offer across the way, you’d have a winner. But somehow Spurs’ feverent passion would, I suspect, feel out of place with the more cerebral style of play on offer at Ashburton Grove and more fitted to the erratic, yet occasionally sublime, nature of Spurs.

But most of all, it served to remind me how much I miss Exeter City. Due to family commitments, birthdays, work, holiday and a few other bits and pieces I’ve not been able to make a single Exeter game this season, and probably won’t be able to until Barnet away at the end of October. And, God, I’ll be ready for it.

I’ve missed the ‘takeover’ of pubs on away days. I’ve missed the array of chants that I still sing at weekend mornings. Quietly. To myself. When I think nobody’s in earshot.

I miss the City club bar – the Centre Spot – which is always rammed and sweaty, but where you can’t take two steps without bumping into an old face. I miss the slightly warm Tribute served there, and the array of ciders and beers from the club’s bottle bar. I miss standing midway down the Big Bank, just to left of the goal, with the same set of people, and Scotty’s mum handing out a bag of sweets. I miss watching our centre-backs hoof the ball aimlessly up the pitch. I miss the surge forward and unadulterated joy of when we score that sees me hugging anybody within range.I even miss the anti-Argyle chants, irrelevant as they currently are.

I miss Exeter City. And no amount of breathtakingly stunning football from precocious youngsters in a sparkling new stadium will ever change that.

Gary Elsewhere: on Oxford United

As the title suggest, this week’s Soccerlens column is on Oxford United, and their current financial predicament.

I feel sorry for Oxford’s fans. They’ve been passed from pillar to post ever since Robert Maxwell’s takeover, and are stuff suffering the effects of Firoz Kassam’s stewardship of the club. The current owners are definitely a vast improvement on Kassam – and certainly aren’t helped by the fact he still owns the stadium and charges rent for it – but there have probably been a couple of honest mistakes along the way.

It also doesn’t help when the board stay quiet, which allows rumour and speculation to grow. Although since I wrote that piece they have apparently told Radio Oxford they’re not going into administration.

What happens now remains to be seen. I, for one, hope Oxford pull through this. They’ve got a great set of fans who have suffered for many many years now.


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