Football: the new church?

Communications and communities together provide a formidable force for change, writes the head of Copa90.

Recent years have seen dramatic changes in the places we meet and spend most of our waking hours.

For starters, around the world, billions use social media every day.

And now, at Facebook - a place where more than two billion of us congregate - its leader Mark Zuckerberg is trying to flip the narrative towards "meaningful" social connections, what with the network’s newsfeed overhaul to promote posts from friends and family over and above those from businesses and brands.

This has come in response to criticism not only that social media can fuel feelings of isolation and despair, but also that it allows fake news and propaganda to circulate.

What’s more, news of this overhaul came just days after we had reeled in disgust over the antics of vlogger Logan Paul, who mocked an apparent suicide victim’s body. Is this what our digitally-charged world has come to?

We can only hope that the clamour for likes and attention, whatever the cost, shall start to subside as we start to recognise the ill effects. The shift may be gradual but it should strike fear into ‘fish and chip paper’ platforms – those which specialise in transient content publishing, without legacy, reason, nor purpose.

It’s certainly the case that, while online platforms have housed ‘community’ in kind, they’re being fragmented and undermined by the antics of the unscrupulous and the weakness of much of the content which fuels them – whether we’re talking fake news designed to influence elections, ads around inappropriate content, extremist material, or idiotic ‘influencers’.  

Fortunately it’s not all bad news online, however. Social media has also harnessed positive movements for social change very effectively – the likes of the #MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter, and the disaster response so desperately needed when it comes to tragedies such as the fire at Grenfell Tower; from communities, if not from government.

We are also harnessing the power of our own community to tackle a shocking suicide rate in young men – one which rightly deserves more attention. Copa90 worked alongside suicide charity Maytree to raise awareness of a subject which is too often side-lined. Speaking to your mate at the match about more than just the game is an important, and an easy, message to convey with an authentic voice to people who want to listen. 

 This is football, a football audience, football fans and their relationship with a subject matter so long a taboo. This is dealing with depression through the lens of football via interviews with players who suffered it and want to talk about it. This is seeing fans tell the stories of those they lost to the result of a condition they didn’t see, recognise, nor understand. 

Can it be that passion points like this can provide the unity which can be so hard to find elsewhere? Will communities like these found in football be able to deal with issues the way locals might have once leveraged their local church? 

For a while now, we’ve used the filter of the beautiful game to bring to life stories and unpack issues which would otherwise be ignored, unseen or misunderstood. This has allowed us to tell stories to audiences who are ignorant or naive merely because there is no other means of consuming information on such subjects. 

 For instance, we’ve created films about football fans in Syria - ultra fans who still attend games and offer up unwavering vocal support despite the backdrop of a horrific war. For them, this is about catharsis, escapism from real life, and a chance to remind themselves of the old normal and what a life could be when war subsides. 

Football also allowed us to release a documentary with ITV, as well via our own platforms, which raised awareness of the refugee crisis. It meant children as young as seven were able to learn about the plight of refugees, their struggles and their stories, through the language of football and a football tournament. No longer just faceless rampaging hoards, you instead became intrinsically linked to human stories of bravery and survival and against the odds life in the face of adversity. 

We have found that the football fan community is able to tackle issues in a meaningful way. With worth and substance, and which generates true, valuable interaction. Similarly, marketing can challenge. It needn’t just reflect.

The best advertising – the likes of Sport England’s "This girl can" campaign, which championed female empowerment and capability, or Procter & Gamble’s award-winning "Like a girl" which also questioned our assumptions, and tried to improve the status quo – show that communications and communities together provide a formidable force for change.

Because while one individual may choose to leverage his influence to mock a dead body, another can use it to stop a suicide before it happens, to attempt to reduce depression, anxiety and loneliness, and to save lives.

James Kirkham is head of Copa90

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