I read this post on Moz about building a sense of community which I urge you to read. It is specifically focussed on online communities, which I’m interested in, but the principles could also be applied “IRL”. However, the example I am going to relate it to, supporting a football club, straddles both the physical and online worlds, in that much of a modern football fan’s support is played out on social media, on blogs and in forums and across website comment sections.
There is more to this than I will explore right now, specifically the argument that, unlike many online communities, it is perhaps not in the interests of some football clubs to nurture the existing sense of community. This is not something I will delve into now.
I will start with two quotes from the post which resonate for me:
“The higher the boundary, the stronger the sense of community.”
“Make sure all newcomers understand the narrative of the community their [sic] joining and their place within it.
Nostalgia is good here too. Subtle reminders to positive events which have taken place in the past reinforce the community identity.”
If our community is that of football fans, or more granularly, as fans of a particular club, then as the boundaries to these communities and the (knowledge of) shared history weakens, then that sense of community begins to feel diluted. An example recently was when I was sat in a dentist’s chair about to get a wisdom tooth extracted, making idle chit-chat with the dentist. Noticing my English accent, he made a safe bet and started talking about football, asking who I supported. I said Leeds. Soon he revealed he was a Manchester United fan. I should have seen a visible reaction when I mentioned I was a Leeds fan but there was nothing. I shouldn’t have let a Man Utd fan perform a medical procedure on me but I realised, though not explicitly at the time, that living 10,000 miles away from the epicentres of these communities means that the sense of community (and its associated rivalries) is diluted. I can make a safe assumption that this fan wasn’t fully aware of the shared history, otherwise I’m sure something would have been said. (Although, perhaps we were both being too polite, as I’m normally quite quick to let Manchester United fans know I don’t like their team).
This weakened sense of community manifests itself in existing supporters labelling new supporters “plastic”. Something I’ve been guilty of myself (on seeing a man wearing Aston Villa tracksuit bottoms with a Liverpool jacket). Boundaries, separating insiders from outsiders, strengthening the sense of a community, are brought down as these communities move into the mainstream through global television rights, online streaming and social media. Coming to these communities late and adopting them without having the full understanding of their history weakens the sense of community for long-standing members, which provokes the attack on the integrity of new supporters.
I would distance myself from any racial or geographical prejudice which is often attributed to this phenomenon. Having recently adopted teams in a number of football codes (two of in which I am a total newbie/plastic) in Sydney, I have found myself somewhat part of various communities but severely lacking in their shared histories. For me it’s frustrating but I can understand how, if you were thousands of miles away from the original centres of the communities, you may be none the wiser and simply happy to consider yourself a part of them. However, to most long-standing members of these communities, simply wearing the right colours does not make you a fully signed-up member of the community, that is something that is earned.
The sense of identity which comes with supporting a football team is part of that sense of community. This is a major reason why we do it. Despite poor results and off-the-field drama, it feels good to belong. So when it becomes too easy for anyone to be a part of the community or when people do not fully understand what has gone before or the narrative surrounding your club or any other club, then the sense (or illusion) of that community is at least partially broken, which doesn’t feel good. That said, like any community, new members can eventually be accepted through shared experience and emotion.