#followingtherugby Playing in the social (media) grades

It would be appreciated if all All Blacks captain Kieran Read's 86,000 Instagram followers could...
It would be appreciated if all All Blacks captain Kieran Read's 86,000 Instagram followers could ensure their social media comments stick to the topic of rugby and portray the game in a positive light. Thanks. Image: ODT/Social media
The Rugby World Cup is big. Social media is huge. Obviously, if you want to follow the rugby you should follow it on social media — or, so you’d think, writes Bruce Munro.

At the time, it seemed like the perfect idea.

The reasoning went like this. Rugby World Cup 2019 is here. Social media dominates everything. Donald Trump is the king of social media influencers. So, why not ask the President of the United States to give rugby a plug in his endless stream of tweets?

"Hi Donald, Can you give a shout-out to Kieran Read, Captain of the All Blacks, about to take on the world in the Rugby World Cup, in Japan. That would be great, Thanks."

Friendly, direct, not onerous. Should do the trick.

Only, it didn't.

Sure, the tweet got hundreds of "impressions" as it briefly streaked across the twittersphere. But from the Oval Office there was no response. Maybe the leader of the free world was too busy tapping out another 280-character fake news tirade to notice.

Which is a shame. Because it means there is a good chance the 45th US President is unaware the ninth Rugby World Cup (RWC) kicked off at Tokyo Stadium last evening.

Trump and many of his 64.4million Twitter followers are likely oblivious to the fact that the RWC is the four-yearly pinnacle of the international rugby calendar; that it is a titanic 20 team, 620 player, six week battle for global supremacy; and, most importantly, that the All Blacks, who already hold the most world titles, are attempting to win an incredible third back-to-back championship, which would bring their RWC tally to four, twice that of any other nation.

English captain Owen Farrell has a combined total of 450,000 followers on Instagram and Twitter,...
English captain Owen Farrell has a combined total of 450,000 followers on Instagram and Twitter, but still gets follwers tweeting "Maybe invest in learning to how to tackle properly". Photo: Getty Images
That gaping hole in so many lives is astounding, disconcerting, wrong.

In 2019, everything, it seems, including rugby, is filtered through a social media lens. Worldwide, the number of internet users has risen more than 9% in the past year, to 4.388billion people, the Hootsuite Global State of Digital reports. The number of social media users around the world has risen by the same percentage. There are now about 3.5billion Facebookers, Twitterers, YouTubers, Instagramers, Snapchatters ...

Surely, this online behemoth is the logical vehicle for knowing about and following rugby.

Is social media the true path to rugby enlightenment?

It is a question that desperately needs to be asked. And then answered. Probably in that order.

The decision is taken to explore the online lives of six of the RWC nation captains - Japan's Michael Leitch, England's Owen Farrell, South Africa's Siya Kolisi, Fiji's Akapusi Qera, the Wallabies' Michael Hooper and, inevitably, the All Blacks' Kieran Read.

Initially, the signs are promising.

All six have a social media presence. Some, quite a substantial one. Instagram tends to be the platform of choice.

Farrell leads the pack with 260,000 followers on Instagram and 190,600 on Twitter, but only 2400 on Facebook.

Read can boast 86,800 Instagram followers, but only 788 Twitterees.

Taking the bronze is Leitch. His support base is on Twitter where he has 34,200 followers, compared with 16,200 on Instagram.

Looking at the captains' online logs, there are some solid rugby-related posts.

Japan captain Michael Leitch has a solid support base on Twitter of 34,200 followers, and another...
Japan captain Michael Leitch has a solid support base on Twitter of 34,200 followers, and another 16,200 on Instagram. PHOTO: REUTERS
Read's most recent Instagram photo is of the entire All Blacks squad at the official RWC welcome event. Ignore the lifeless grey suits and the dodgy prep-school caps, because Read has posted some worthy words: "Excited to now get into our mahi together". More than 10,000 people have liked that post and 49 have added their own comments, including fellow All Black Aaron Smith who was the first to reply, adding a black flame emoji and cryptically writing "Emoji game", doubtless an insider injunction to "Go hard".

Kolisi's Instagraming includes a photo of himself, posted in February this year, roaring defiantly after scoring a try in a test match against France. With the photo, he has put just one word, "Legend". Inspirational.

Other aspects of these sporting heroes' social media presence are, however, concerning.

Kolisi only has 376 Instagram disciples. Equally disquieting; in the past week the South African captain has started following this journalist on Instagram, where he would have found a solitary, year-old post. That post now has a mate; a montage screen shot of Kieran Read in full flight, charging down opponents, performing haka, scoring tries and holding trophies on high. Given the site's esteemed audience and tonight's test between the All Blacks and the Springboks, it seemed the patriotic thing to do.

Qera has less than 4500 online followers across all three of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. He also has not verified this journalist's requests to follow him on Instagram and Twitter.

But most shocking is Hooper, who appears to be a complete social media Luddite. A couple of years ago, he reportedly had 44,000 followers on Instagram, but had not posted a photo in two years. Now, he appears to be AWOL from both Instagram and Twitter.

Hooper has been reported saying he stays away from social media, preferring instead to "do stuff here and now". Outrageous.

There is a theory that Wallabies captain Michael Hooper, by eschewing social media in favour of...
There is a theory that Wallabies captain Michael Hooper, by eschewing social media in favour of doing real things, is increasing his socials credibility. Go figure. Photo: Getty Images
On top of that, those rugby captains who do post on social media are prone to stray from the straight and narrow. Leitch's most recent Instagram offering is a photo of himself with his father, to mark his dad's birthday. Farrell's latest post, across all three of his main channels, is a video of himself kicking an impossible penalty with words in support of sponsor Investec. The previous post was a photo of him and former England representative players David Flatman and Martin Johnson standing awkwardly in a field, each with a dog, "discussing all things leadership ahead of the @rugbyworldcup @LandroverUK". Setting aside the disastrous syntax of the sentence and the strong whiff of sponsorship, how does it serve the higher goal of helping those in rugby darkness see the light?

Read does not come out squeaky clean either. His posts include an Adidas-sponsored video that suggests art and rugby have something in common; free publicity for the Black Caps; and, a January video of his three children dancing to music on a summer's day. Almost 26,000 people have viewed that adorable video. What is the take home rugby message there? Missed opportunity, captain.

Seeing the desperate need to lift our game, but consoled by the thought that it is a game of two halves, another Twitter distress flare is fired over Trump's trademark bouffant.

"Hi Mr President. The Rugby World Cup is about to kick-off in Japan. It's a great event, bringing down walls between nations. Could you give a Twitter shout-out to All Blacks captain Kieran Read. That might spread the word and help keep rugby great, again. Chur."

Surely the reference to walls and keeping things great will resonate.

It gets hundreds of views, one "like", is retweeted by @T2RugbyForum - and then withers and dies.

The investigation continues. How are the social media "followers" faring? Are they being enlightened? Are they serving the greater cause?

The results are far from encouraging.

This week, Springboks captain Siya Kolisi had the misfortune of becoming an Instagram follower of...
This week, Springboks captain Siya Kolisi had the misfortune of becoming an Instagram follower of ODT journalist Bruce Munro. Photo: Getty Images
There are some genuinely rugby-oriented responses to RWC titans' posts. Responding to a photo of Leitch and George Gregan posing with rugby-playing children in Sapporo, Kikiinjapan wrote "You guys are both legends! What a great experience." That's the spirit.

But some rugby fans are playing the man, not the ball. Moxi reacted to Farrell's Investec video with "Maybe Invest in learning how to tackle properly".

Others are taking their eye off the ball entirely. After viewing a post of an athletic-looking Farrell about to kick a conversion, suraya401 wrote "I love you, plz follow me". And after seeing Read's Christmas Eve post of a note to Santa - already not high on the rugby-passionometer - mary.troff responded with "Hello, my name is Marina. I am writing to ask for your help. Our mother has a pain in her legs, she needs money for treatment. Help please ... Need 300$". Really? If her mother had needed money to buy rugby boots, then maybe.

How are people supposed to find out about rugby and get passionate about it when the social media scene is such a mess? What is going on?

"I'm a fan of the All Blacks, for sure. I don't watch fervently. But I am excited for the Rugby World Cup," says an effervescent voice with a distinctly American twang.

The statement comes mid-way through a conversation with Dr Sommer Kapitan, who teaches and researches marketing, at Auckland University of Technology (AUT).

"Social media influencers are my bag", she says.

Hence the phone call to her.

People with social media clout are called influencers, Dr Kapitan explains.

And most often they are using that influence, at least in part, to make a living.

Being an influencer is different from being a celebrity who endorses things on television adverts. Influencers have more clout because they are believed to be more credible.

Social media guru, Dr Sommer Kapitan, of Auckland University of Technology, says influencers want...
Social media guru, Dr Sommer Kapitan, of Auckland University of Technology, says influencers want to integrate themselves into our daily lives to the point that we trust their recommendations almost as though they were our family. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

Dr Kapitan says it's all about familiarity, visibility and accessibility.

"Your credibility as a `brand to be trusted', in this day and age, always comes down to how visible you are - if you can be searched, if people can learn about you."

In the world of the influencer, content is king.

"Because you create your own content ... you are viewed as a lot more independent."

Intentional influencers have three goals when it comes to their audience - connect, engage and energise.

"You do that by being authentic. Only posting stuff that's really true and relevant to you, showing your expertise, showing the things you love.

"Your goal is to be almost integrated into their daily lives so that there is a sense of intimacy and friendship."

Dr Kapitan explains Read's New Year dancing video through that influencer lens.

"For me, what's always been cool about sports isn't necessarily the rules of the game and how wrong the ref's calls were, but the story behind it, the people behind it.

"Kieran Read's kids dancing on the lawn is his own content, his own perspective, his own world, not mediated through something else. And that's appealing."

That helps strengthen the relationship between a follower and the influencer.

"Because of that we believe their endorsements more. We believe it is really part of their daily life. Even if they are just pushing a new version of lipstick or energy drink at you.

"We trust them more because ... they are part of our lives.

"We trust their recommendations, almost as though they were our family and friends."

Dr Kapitan even has an explanation for what is going on with social media absentee, Hooper. He might be doing the same thing by doing the opposite.

Hooper, who has endorsement contracts with commercial outfits, might be using his social media silence to get our attention, she says.

"If he's thinking `This is a bit of a waste of time, I'm just going to do and be' that's quite cool, right?

"It's different. And it's a way to stand out from everybody who is trying to be visible on these platforms. He's not being part of that stream, that torrent of noise, so that when he does speak his voice might carry more volume."

Frankly, it's all rather confusing. People trying to make a living, people trying to be liked for being themselves, others trying to find people they can trust and build community with, people doing all of the above at the same time. This social media malarkey is too much like the messiness and complexity of real life. Where's the clear sidelines, the definitive off-side rule, the ref calling "crouch, bind, set", two teams wearing different colours so you know who the opposition is and who is on your team?

In the world of influencers, RWC captains are small fry, Dr Kapitan says.

Farrell's 260,000 followers and Read's 86,000 are barely a blip compared with the global social media heavyweights - US socialite Kim Kardashian (148million Twitter followers); Swedish vlogger Felix Kjellberg, better known as PewDiePie (100million YouTube subscribers); and, Brazilian comedian Whindersson Nunes (77million followers across all social media channels).

But, says Dr Kapitan, the number one influencer, despite having fewer than 65million followers, is the real covfefe, Donald Trump.

Trump has deliberately cultivated his social media presence and an international appetite for his content. Being US president gives him extra beef.

"Every time he tweets, the world listens."

There must be one last throw of the dice.

Pulling together every scrap from a stupendous paucity of social media savvy, riding the coat-tails of a presidential Twitter thread about the presentation of a medal to New York Yankees pitcher Mariano Rivera, recklessly throwing in a trendy "@" and hashtag, a third and final RWC tweet is launched.

"Hi Mr President. Baseball's fun. But, the Rugby World Cup is kicking-off in Japan. It's a great event, bringing down walls between nations. Please give a Twitter shout-out to All Blacks captain Kieran Read. It might help keep rugby great, again. Chur. @kieranRead8 #RugbyWorldCup".

It was one final, valiant attempt to save the beautifully ugly game from oblivion.

Without success.

That's probably the last we'll hear of it.



Kapitan, their Capitaine. Social Media is Showbiz.

In McLuhanesque terms, it is 'Cold', due to the distancing technology. Users are 'Hot', in a Cold medium.

What you want? Untrammelled Journalism, with colour; Print, Radio, TV. 'Hot' media.

Broadcasting, not online Narrowcasting.

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