Jul 1 3:39 PM

World Cup dominates but is diluted by social media

Tweeting in the moment.
Pedro Ugarte / AFP / Getty Images

Soccer has been a multimedia experience since fans at matches a half century ago held transistor radios to their ears to follow games being played elsewhere. The significance of the Internet, mobile phones and social media in the experience of the World Cup has grown since Japan-Korea 2002, but Brazil 2014 may mark a qualitative and as well as a quantitative shift: It’s not just the technology that has changed, but our narratives of the tournament.

Even in the months preceding the tournament, Google had reported that the number of searches on the topic “World Cup” was greater than the combined total for the Super Bowl, Tour de France and the 2012 Olympics. Latin Americans were particularly fervent searchers, but soccer-related searches in the U.S. have grown by over 200 per cent in the last year, concentrated amongst young coastal urbanites and Latinos. Figures reported for soccer-related viewing on YouTube are similarly hegemonic, dwarfing the next nine sports combined with 1.6 billion views in a month.

As recently as the 2010 World Cup, most of those searches would come at the end of tournament games and at desktop computers; now the majority come from mobile devices and they go on all through the game. Facebook announced it had hosted over 1 billion World Cup related interactions during the first half of the tournament, involving 220 million people. In the World Cup’s first week alone, the 459 million Facebook exchanges exceeded the combined total reported for the Sochi Winter Olympics, the 2014 Super Bowl and the Academy Awards; Mexicans and Brazilians have been particularly enthusiastic users. 

Brazil’s clash with Chile last Saturday saw a record 389,000 tweets per minute and over 16.4 million in total. And animations of tweet densities show the World Cup’s popularity in the Americas, Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

All of this furious social media activity is centered electronic conversations between people watching games in real time on television. In this realm too, FIFA is claiming record numbers, and expects the 2014 World Cup to exceed the total global audience of 3.2 billion registered by South African 2010. In the United States, especially, the team’s games have attracted record viewing figures — in an increasingly fragmented media world, Team USA’s broadcasts are recording truly exceptional audiences.  Even here, the vertically integrated and highly secured official live feeds have competition as the Brazilian anarchist Ninja media collective has offered live streams of protests and demonstrations alongside it.

What do these changes tell us?    

First, the balance of coverage, though with enormous differences between different national medias, has allowed a wider, more cosmopolitan range of voices to be heard. Mainstream media devotes more time and space to teams other than their own; features more material on the host and the wider social context of the tournament than ever before; and features fans and the public carnival around the tournament more successfully than at prior World Cups. Within all of those areas, we are more likely to hear more voices, as match reports and interviews are supplemented with a trawl of social media for the mood of many publics.  

Even then, we are still not getting enough of the fans’s eye view. The stadium coverage remains stuck on the lamentable clichés of attractive women picked out in a very male crowd, and the Pavlovian rapture that the arrival of the stadium cam evokes in the bleachers. The cameras show us the arrival of the players off the bus, and long shots of their warm ups, why not show us the arrival of the crowds and great slow tracking shots of the stands? Why not just turn off the commentary and run some really good sound out of the heart of the crowd itself. By the same token, it’s great to sense the collective digital fizz of a hundred thousand goooooooooals, but let’s raise the bar people — less trolling, less bland statements of the obvious and more haikus please.

Second, coverage of the tournament now offers fans a much more complex, compelling and accessible range of narratives than just their own national ordeal. Like a collection of internationally authored short stories, there are 31 other nations’ reflections, reverses and interpretations to consider. Unlike even the most carefully themed anthology, these stories are themselves tightly bound together by the cohesive framework of the competition as a whole, something that renders the dramatic structure of the tournament closer to the complex agglomerations of the lengthy post-modern novels of Roberto Bolano and David Foster Wallace. The presence of the small but persistent protest movements and their presence of social media as well as on the ground evoke the parallel universes and hidden worlds of Don DeLillo.  

Third, the fragmentation of consciousness, the compression of attention spans into milliseconds that this kind of mediascape requires is changing the way crowds and audiences experience football. We are shooting video when we could be clapping; we are reading tweets when we could be singing; we are posing for selfies as goals are scored. Above all else we are detaching ourselves from the sinuous, relentless flow of football. Its ever changing three-dimensional patterns of players and spaces can really be grasped only in mindful engagement, for which no amount of dropping in, snapshots and hurried glances can suffice. You can skim a novel, but you simply have to read a poem.  

The globalization of communications and the arrival of social media will help us to tell more and better stories of the World Cup and its meanings, in more interesting, reflective and democratic ways than we have done in the past; but if, when required, we do not stop talking and posting and  start just watching and being in the game, we will have no stories to tell with poetry.


Soccer, World Cup

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