The wisdom of crowds?

The announcement yesterday (13.11.07) that MyFootballClub(.com, obviously) have agreed to buy 51% of Ebbsfleet United of the Blue Square Premiership league represented an interesting development in the power of the Internet to mobilize passions and interests in ways that were not really possible before. For those not familiar with the project, MyFootballClub is an experiment in Internet-mediated mass participation. In return for £35, members will be able not only to participate in the governance of the club as a whole but also, extraordinarily, be able to help pick the team for the next fixture through expressing preferences through the website. As many as 20,000 people were sufficiently enthused by this project to stump up the cash which generated a war fund of £700,000 which enabled the MyFootball Club Trust to buy a controlling stake in a team that is in the fifth tier of professional football in England. I am particularly interested in this development for two reasons. First, I am in the process of rewriting a paper on the mobilization of affect and passion within the economy more generally, or what Henry Jenkins (Convergence Culture, 2006, NYUP) has described as ‘affective economics’. The Internet has a particular capacity to mobilize such affective energy, and the geography of the membership of MyFootballClub is testament to this, being drawn from as many as 73 different countries. The second reason that I am interested is that I have to confess that I am one of those 20,000 fee-paying members. I justified my decision to part with £35 on a project that, frankly, seemed like pie-in-sky back in the summer of 2007 when I joined by framing it as a form of research investment. I was working in this area and membership provided me access to the discussion forums and information from the organizers. But as a football fan, I must admit part of me was also keen to have the opportunity to participate in the running of a football club, however fractional that effort would be in light of the overall size of the membership.

How this experiment will work in practice will be interesting to observe; there is more than a suspicion that for many this offers an opportunity to replicate the gameplay of successful PC titles such as Championship Manager and Football Manager, but this time in real life. The fact that the average age of the membership is 27 adds weight to this suspicion (and a gender breakdown of membership would surely confirm that this is project in the main for 20-something men). It’s yet another example of the mobilizing and democratizing potential of digital technology, allowing the participation of actors within a field to which they would otherwise be denied access. The political implications of this will be fascinating too, and I suspect the initial enthusiasm expressed by the club official and Head Coach may well be tempered in time as they struggle to deal with the fact that their livelihoods are strongly influenced by an anonymous public vote. Decisions made in Football Manager have no real consequence; but decisions made in MyFootballClub will. Still, I’m hoping to convince the Head Coach to adopt my adventurous 3-3-1-3 formation, although I suspect that I may be outvoted 19,999 to 1.