Tellin’ Stories

Tim Stillman column Arseblog

Last week I attended a conference. Radio 4’s Aleks Krotoski was one of the keynote speakers. Dr. Krotoski is a podcaster and broadcaster, she effectively tells stories for a living. In her address, she reflected on the history of storytelling and concluded that, right now, we are living through an absolutely unique moment in human history with regards to how we share information- or to put it another way, how we tell stories.

For almost the entirety of human history, storytelling has been a very selective privilege. Some centuries ago, only certain elites were afforded the privilege of handing down stories from the bible. Few people could read or write, which gave priests a sort of elevated status in society. The contents of the bible were first decided by a guild known as the Council of Nicea, before being handed to an ecclesiastical authority. This is known as Canon Law.

So the dispersal of information has always been quite a top down process. Even when the printing press was first invented, only a select few could afford access to such a tool. As such, society has always been pretty hierarchical and those towards the bottom of the pyramid have been more willing to accept authority, historically. As Dr. Krotoski spoke, my mind, as it is wont to do, began to apply her observations to football.

There has always been an element of misery and defeatism hardwired into the football fan. Nick Hornby observes it brilliantly in his seminal book Fever Pitch. Hornby asserts that it was the genuine unhappiness of the crowd that caught his eye on his first ever trip to Highbury. The difference now is that this unhappiness has a much longer shelf life and travels far outside of the stadium walls. For fairly obvious reasons (social media, the internet, blah, blah, blah etc), misery has company long after the final whistle.

During the same conference, author and philosopher Alain de Botton also gave a keynotes speech. He reflected on something his mother-in-law once said to him shortly after an argument with his wife. “It’s so much harder for your generation,” she told him, “in my day, we weren’t trying to be happy.” As a society, we have become more demanding and, as such, we aspire beyond the ability to provide three square meals a day and keep the lights on.

Basically, we have a little more space and in our lives and many of us have greater incomes too. So whereas football used to be considered something of a side show- a pleasant distraction from life’s interminable toil- it now occupies a bigger and more taxing space in our psyche. This week has seen further protests against Arsene Wenger as he looks set to stay on at the club for a further two seasons at least.

While fan protests have always existed, they are increasing in prominence as supporters become more unwilling to write off lean periods as part of the peaks and troughs of fandom. Again, there are obvious reasons for the increasing disquiet. The rise of ticket prices, the looming spectre of television companies and expanding player salaries mean it has never been easier for fans to feel alienated and sidelined.

The context of football has shifted too. As fans we often lionise past campaigns through the tint of nostalgia that would nowadays be presented as failure. In my first year as a season ticket holder, Arsenal finished 10th but won both domestic cups. Most people were quite happy with that- I certainly was. But finances, expectations and the increased prominence of the Champions League have altered the definitions of success and glory.

This generation also has a little more leisure time and, with it, greater cranial capacity to take our leisure activities pretty seriously. Protest is also far more powerful as a tool in the modern age. With rolling television news and social media, banners and marches have a visual legacy capable of travelling around the globe in seconds. In turn, people in far flung territories feel engaged with the protest community, even when geographically removed.

A hashtag is a viable form of protest- or at least as an expression of solidarity with protesters. In her address, Dr. Krotoski outlined the reasons that we are living in such a distinctly unique moment in world history. The control of information has altered dramatically and quickly. In 1979, the TV series Dallas famously realised it had made a mistake in killing off a cherished character. Ratings dropped alarmingly.

So the writers fudged the events of an entire series, writing them off as an elaborate dream sequence. This was significant in the media because it was the first time the writers of a popular communal story had kowtowed to the audience and allowed them to influence their output. The seeds of reality television and shows like X Factor were sewn in this seminal moment for mass media, where interactivity became the principle of the story.

It signalled a melding of message and medium. In 2017, we have gone somewhat through the looking glass. Now, everyone has the license to “tell stories.” They don’t need to wait for an invitation to become involved, we are no longer studio audiences at the behest of writers and television executives. The question as to who owns information is becoming increasingly foggy.

We have arrived at a stage where the President of the most powerful nation in the west actively instructs people not to trust traditional forms of media (or storytellers). We are told to mistrust ‘elites.’ He instructs people to look instead to what ostensibly amounts to his own private media channels- most of which are close to fan fiction. Fan fiction is a recent phenomenon that has created tension between publishers and audiences because it muddies the idea of the intellectual property of storytellers.

In this context, people have become incredibly empowered and this probably helps to explain the thirst for protest amongst football fans, like the ones we currently see against Arsene Wenger. Arsenal Fan TV is a perfect example of a powerful home-made medium that inverts the historically typical structure of ‘storytelling.’ For all of human history, interaction has been a pretty top down process, now it’s becoming ‘bottom up’ in many cases. Even the radio station has come under threat from the podcast medium- broadcasting technology is affordable and available to many.

de Botton spoke to some of the issues this new hierarchy creates. “We are not great communicators,” he said, “because this is the first time in human history that anyone has actually listened to us.” One can see how readily this relates to football discourse. Through social media we all have a self publishing platform capable of reaching large audiences in a matter of seconds.

de Botton quizzically asked the audience, “why do people love football so much?” To which he gave his own interpretation, “Because it’s easy to follow, it’s short, the rules are simple, you can see everything that’s going on and it has a definitive outcome. It’s the exact opposite of life- and certainly the opposite of what we experience in our professional lives.”

But one thing football doesn’t give us is control. Beyond yelling into the void, we have very little influence over what is going on. Historically, this bothered people less- they didn’t have the time, let alone the inclination, to assert influence on their football team. In 2017, we are encouraged not only to interact with the “story” that unfolds in front of us, but to write ourselves into it. We can become playwright and actor all in one. We crave influence.

In this new democracy of narrative and influence, protesting against the manager of your football team’s new contract feels like a natural thing to do. Watching football is an essentially powerless pursuit, but in the modern age, powerlessness has never felt more out of fashion. Millions voted for Britain to exit the European Union on the premise of “taking back control.” As such, expect banners and marches to become an increasingly common occurrence against this milieu of empowerment.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto


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