Monday, 2 May 2011

The demise of fanzines and the rise of the blog

When Saturday Comes is 25 this year, so let's all sing Happy Birthday. After three, with me. One, two... Actually forget that, it'll take too long.

To celebrate the milestone, the magazine has been running a series of retrospectives exploring the changes that have taken place during the period. The April edition, in a piece by Taylor Parkes, focused on the changing nature of fan culture or as he put it the 'long road from the proudly ideological fanzines of 25 years ago to the shattering inanities of Soccer Am and James Corden's World Cup show".

The piece has much merit; James Corden certainly figures highly on my list of people I'd like to punch repeatedly and Parkes correctly identifies fanzines' assimilation by the mainstream media.

Come anywhere near me and you will be history, boy

However, Parkes also takes a very downbeat tone, concluding that: "Football's owners have assumed almost total control, not just over how the game is run but how it's watched, discussed, experienced, its place in British culture and it's overriding mood. Football, I fear, is not coming home." Blimey, let's run a hot bath and break out the razor blades.

Essentially, without being explicit, this argument adheres to one of the key tenets of cultural studies - the notion of 'hegemony' as outlined in the work of the Italian philosopher and political theorist Antonio Gramsci. In short this is the ability of a dominant class to employ leadership over a society. However, this leadership is not simply based on the ownership and control of the means of production or a state monopoly of violence.

Consequently, the ideology of this dominant group can't simply be 'imposed' and the subordinate classes do not just blindly comply. Instead hegemony is earned by achieving a complex balance between negotiation, concessions, threats and pressures before opposition can grow too large. Once won, hegemony operates at a level of everyday consciousness - it becomes what's regarded as 'common sense'.

Cultural studies identifies sport and the media as two key ideological apparatus through which the battle for hegemony can be fought. Reading Parkes' article, his conclusion is clear; fans have 'lost' this battle however there is one gaping hole in his argument; he completely overlooks the rise of football blogging - the new fanzine.

It is true that, for a variety of reasons, fanzines have become less relevant than they were. Firstly, the social topography of fandom has changed - the Hillsborough disaster, through the legal requirement for all-seater stadia among other things, lead to a long-overdue revolution in the match-day facilities on offer for fans. At around the same time hooliganism  as part of the match-day routine has greatly diminished.

The majority of fans increasingly felt they had a voice as they were no longer seen as hooligans and thugs - a problem which needed to be contained - but consumers with lots of disposable income which needed to be extracted. To this new breed of fan, fanzines are a thing of the past. Hell, who needs to complain so long as you don't get wet when it rains and you can drink warm lager and pay £1.50 for a packet of crisps at half time?

At the same time, and particularly since the introduction of the Premier League the game itself went through a massive and accelerated process of commercialization. This led to a dramatic increase in the amount of football coverage. Papers from tabloids to broadsheets started to offer sports 'supplements', and use sport as part of their marketing strategy. At a local level, this change manifested itself when 'mainstream' publications acknowledged fanzines' popularity and so went to fanzine writers for comments on club issues and in some cases even offered them columns on the papers.

Thirdly, over time fanzines themselves began to take on a more mainstream feel. Some started running interviews with players and managers from their relevant club. Once this happened it meant fanzines had to tone down their criticism of the club or access to such personnel would be withdrawn (something that also effects local newspaper coverage).

Furthermore, the rise in availability and affordability of high-quality home computers and desk-top publishing packages meant fanzines were no longer cut-and-paste, photocopy jobs sold by smelly old blokes outside football grounds but instead became well-designed, glossy products that were sold in High Street stores like WHSmiths with cover prices placing them in the same bracket as 'mainstream' magazines.

The early Nineties also saw an explosion in the magazine market (not just football and lads' mags but also computer, women's and celebrity titles) and, again, some fanzine writers crossed over to mainstream publications. James Brown who was editor of Loaded at its launch in 1994 began his career on a music fanzine a decade earlier.

Thus fanzines simultaneously influenced and were assimilated by the magazine revolution, culture studies theorists would argue that this was evidence of the dominant classes making concessions, but only in so far as it allowed them to win that particular battle. So far, so Taylor Parkes. However this is the bit he overlooked; there has been a huge change in the nature of media consumption in the last twenty five years.

Back then waiting for Ceefax to scroll through to the right page was as exciting and up-to-the minute as technology got and who had a mobile phone? OK, all those Yuppie wankers maybe, but not real people. Now we're all Yuppie wankers and we can browse the net, get the latest stats and talk to our mates almost wherever and whenever we like (without the hassle of actually having to meet them).

That's you that is

This revolution in technology and social networking has opened up a new battleground in the fight for how football is consumed. Blogging is part of the recent rise in what professsor Clemencia Rodriguez defined, around a decade ago, as 'citizen media'. Essentially Rodriguez argues media has changed from the traditional definition in which “communication is sent from one place and received in many places by a large audience” to one where the recipients have also become also the producers.

The death of Ian Tomlinson during the G20 protests in 2009, was initially attributed to a heart attack until video shot on a mobile phone showing him being pushed to the ground by a police officer in full riot gear was handed to The Guardian newspaper. The same year the shooting of Neda Agha-Soltan in Iran was captured, again on mobile phone, by an anti-Government protestor and quickly uploaded to the internet becoming a symbol for the movement. Earlier this year Egyptian activist Wael Ghonim credited Facebook as being central to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak.

The relatively low-cost of hardware such as computers and video cameras (on phones or otherwise) plus easy access, via the internet, to a means of dissemination has democratised the means of media production and re-opened the battle for hegemony the world over. 

It may seem flippant to compare football blogging to those covering the bloody political upheaval in the Middle East and elsewhere, but crudely speaking from a social and cultural perspective it's all part of the same process. The editors of In Bed With Maradona describe themselves and the site's contributors as 'revolutionaries', a tongue-in-cheek moniker no doubt but one that hints at the idea they believe there is something they need to fight against.

Football bloggers are a disparate group with no leadership structure but they have similar thoughts and feelings on many issues from crap punditry to the still implicit homophobia, xenophobia and sexism within the game and social media such as Twitter allow them to form a loose 'community of interest' to express dissatisfaction with this.

Increasingly football bloggers are defining how they experience and think about the game themselves using their experience and knowledge of, among other things, popular culture, politics and philosophy.

To name just three, Dispatches From A Football Sofa has used The Wire to argue that modern footballers will never have the mythical qualities of their predecessors (spoiler alert!); Good Feet For A Big Man has used New Labour's demise to implore Arsene Wenger to stick to his footballing principles and Twisted Blood used Ernest Hemingway's writng on bull fighting to suggest that bravery is overstated as a quality in a player in a team sport.

These articles couldn't be further removed from the likes of Alan Shearer and Alan Hansen chuckling their way through another Match of the Day performance or the tabloids unquestioningly printing 'Arry Redknapp's assertion that Gareth Bale is an £80m player without questioning how this can be so when he has only one - YES ONE - assist in the Premier League all season.

No, Parkes is wrong. Football's not coming home because it never went away; it just lost its voice for a while.

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William Abbs said...

The story of how and why fans started to write seriously about football is a topic close to my heart. It started as a kind of print protest movement designed to reclaim the sport from the hooligans, politicians, and club owners who sought to drive it into the ground, and that revolutionary spirit - at IBWM and beyond - seems to have survived the genre's online evolution.

The examples given at the end of the article about relating football to the Wire, New Labour, and Hemingway are particularly interesting. Is it possible that a significant proportion of bloggers share common social and cultural references? There's a very good chance, I suspect, that most of us have watched the Wire, voted for a left-leaning political party, and studied Hemingway. On the one hand, that's quite a unifying thought; it helps to justify the "community of interest". However, if this sort of football writing - however excellent - is read only by the same sort of people that write it, how revolutionary can it be?

Martin Palazzotto said...

Although I am deeply, deeply, one might say profoundly hurt that Roger did not mention WFC in this column, I must still come to his defence,against you William.

I can, without a shred of doubt, say that bloggers and the people are most definitely not all the same. I have not watched a single moment of The Wire, voted for a left-wing political party (or candidate) and have never studied Hemingway.

I did read The Old Man and the Sea (loved it) and For Whom the Bell Tolls (hate his female characters) twenty years apart and I've been to Key West any number of times but never toured his house.

So there.

Viva la Revolution!!

William Abbs said...

My apologies if my previous comment was seen as being in any way confrontational. That was never the intention. Rather, I was speculating about whether football blogging in its current state can be defined as a genre of writing in the same way that, say, different strands of music vary from each other stylistically - with various artists/writers interpreting a broad but complementary range of influences in different ways. Sorry if it sounded like I was denigrating the movement - far from it!

Martin said...

I'm pretty sure that I was mostly joking, William.

Yet, just as "a significant portion" of bloggers hold similar interests, meaning less than 100%, one would hope that the same holds true for the readers. For the most part, we may be preaching to the choir, but every once in a while, someone with an open mind walks in off the street.

Take you for instance. You seem to be asking thoughtful, relevant questions. Maybe you should join the movement. We all get cool names on our membership cards. We could call you 'Six-Pack'!