Raising the standard of debate

The reception was mostly mixed. The retort mainly indignant. The point largely missed.

Ahead of City’s home defeat to Rochdale a week ago, Joint-Chairman Mark Lawn used the match day programme to announce Bradford City is considering revamping its website’s official message board so users can only post comments after registering their full name and address, rather than hiding behind the anonymity of a username.

It is an acknowledgment of concern over the current status quo of the content on the board which the whole world can see, and Lawn’s attempt to impart greater responsibility so that, “those supporters who are intent on using them as a means to abuse players or generally use foul and abusive language can no longer hide behind their ‘computer names’.”

On the official message board, this unsurprisingly provoked plenty of comment, with some claiming the club is attempting to silence a growing debate about the reasons behind the Bantams perceived underachievement. Many have argued that they will still be happy to express their dissatisfaction at management and players regardless of if the club knows who they are. A fair point, but one which misses what Lawn is suggesting; in fact rather than look at Bradford City as Big Brother, these proposed new measures may allow users more voice than they currently enjoy.

Often a read of the official message board can be dispiriting and angering. When things are going well on the pitch, it can be a quiet place of limited debate. When things are going wrong, its popularity goes through the roof. Many register users clearly use it only as a place to unleash their anger, rather than treat it a place for balanced debate. This in turn prompts fury for others and very often the discussion is reduced to people insulting each other and their views.

Quite simply it can look embarrassing and for the club to house it is by association a perceived endorsement.  The dilemma is the message board will be the most popular section of the website, bringing in web traffic and, as a result, more advertising revenue. Yet the club cannot sit back and allow people to use their site to heap abuse on their employees, at least not without good reason.

All over the world wide web, such types of debates are now the norm. Every newspaper allows their readers to submit comments on its site, but more often than not they just attract the same dismal level of debate as any of City-related sites. Indeed Private Eye magazine now has a regular section entitled “From the message boards”, mocking the more ludicrous comments left on various websites by people hiding behind usernames.

These new sites are fueled by the dumbed down level of debate, with some people posting ill-thought out or deliberately fury-provoking comments that attract others to angrily log in and hastily have a go back – all the while advertising revenue increases. It shouldn’t be like this and often the people sharing their views are intelligent people capable of expressing themselves more coherently, but something about the hiding behind a username encourages them to lose a degree of sanity.

Perhaps a fair comparison is our attitude when driving. I like to think of myself as well-mannered, calm and collected person. Behind a wheel I’m an angry lunatic ready to swear irrationally at any other the motorist who has the nerve to drive badly or get in my way. I can see other drivers get mad at me when I have done nothing wrong (hey I’m a perfect driver who never makes mistakes!) and we all shake our fists and blast our horns if someone dares to cut us off.

In the real world, walking down the street, we would never dream of being so aggressive towards other people, even if they got in our way (compare walking behind a slow old man who you can’t get past to driving behind a tractor). Inside the metal box of our car, we are protected and allowed to act like an arsehole to others because no one can properly confront us and only the police are allowed to stop us and demand to know our address. Online usernames seem to have a similar affect.

At present it’s not clear if the club want to get rid of the public usernames as well as require addresses, I personally believe they should go the whole hog and make John Smith’s comment appear alongside the name John Smith rather than Bantam_57. It won’t stop users calling Stuart a rubbish manager, because if they really have conviction in their own beliefs it would be insulting to dismiss their views on the basis they have done so from behind a username. But what forcing people to express their views with their own name does is encourage them to better argue their reasons.

It would also allow more decorum. Right now, Stuart is receiving strong criticism and ridicule which is expressed in the most disgraceful of manners. Whatever his strengths and weaknesses, he simply does not deserve to receive abuse for the unquestionably high effort he puts in and the years of service he has given this club. By all means tell the rest of us why you think he is a bad manager, but that does not excuse cowardly attacking him a person.

Equally, the response to other people will be more favourable in tone. At the pub before games, in the ground and among City fans I know, there are some views I don’t agree with and dislike hearing, but I would never respond to them face-to-face by labelling the perpetrator a clueless muppet. If I was responding online to views published by someone using their real name, I would not get abusive towards them either.

But what’s in it for those who revel in calling Wayne Jacobs a clap-happy fool? What about those who are angered by the way the club is being run and are frustrated their voice isn’t heard? Well I personally believe that, if these new changes come into effect, the club then has a duty to publicly pay attention to the message board output.

Right now it’s easy for them to be dismissive of it, but they can use it to more confidently gauge opinion and even engage with supporters by asking for feedback on various matters. Suddenly there can be a more clear and obvious platform for fans to have a say in how the club is run, because the message board has greater credibility. It doesn’t mean the general view is always acted upon – there are often good reasons behind what appear to be “mystifying actions” and the message board will never be representative of all City supporters – but it does bring the club and its supporters closer together.

For the Bantams, in a business sense, are in a highly enviable position which organisations of other industries would love to be in. They have a fiercely loyal following. One that isn’t just willing to turn up every other week no matter how bad things are, but whom a proportion of happily spend the rest of the week talking about the club and sharing their views on it.

Other organisations spend millions a year trying to understand their own customers feedback and put products and services to market which fail because they didn’t fully understand their customers’ needs. Bradford City is different in that success and failure is determining by 11 men on a pitch, but greater consultation with supporters can make a difference to the all important revenues.

For this level of engagement could be used to shape future direction and help the club stay in tune with what their customers want – what people think of the matchday programme, the most popular type of pre-match entertainment, who pre-season friendlies should be against, what next season’s strip should be like and, of course, how popular the manager is.

Right now, this vision can’t be realised with anonymous user names arguing back and forth over who is this biggest muppet, with the club not knowing who the people uttering them really are. Raise the standard of debate, make people accountable for their own views and then listen to them – the club which pioneered making professional football affordable could break the mould again from getting control of the public discussion it facilitates and using it to make a difference.

BfB note: As ever comments are welcome. We always require people to submit their real name and email address and would like to think the standard of debate we house is all the better for it.