Fandom In The Information Age

We face danger whenever information growth outpaces our understanding of how to process it.” 
– Nate Silver “The Signal and the Noise:  Why So Many Predictions Fail-But Some Don’t”

 

I don’t know when it stopped being enough to simply be a fan of a team.

There was a simpler time, I’m led to believe, when one could be a fan of a sports team simply by declaring him or herself so. That person could attend a few games, watch a few more on television or listen to them on the radio. Maybe check the boxscore in the morning over coffee.

And that was that. No one questioned this person’s level of fandom. No one punished them for not being critical of the team or cared that their fandom was blind.

I’m led to believe this time existed. But I know for a certainty that it no longer exists. And I blame the internet for this.

In Nate Silver’s book, which is quoted above, he makes a factual statement early on that struck me and that seems apropos to this conversation. The human brain, for all its wonders and marvels, is only capable of storing one-one millionth of the information that is created. Every single day.

We live in an information age. Unlike any other time in human history, the access to vast amounts of information are available for our consumption at any time we want. The capital of Turkey? No problem. Who won Best Picture in 1947? Give me 60 seconds and I’ll tell you.

The gathering of information, however, has brought about an interesting problem that we have, as of yet, not been able to deal with. Since we can only absorb one-one millionth of the information created every day, how do we choose what information gets that coveted spot inside our brain? More importantly, what do we do with all this information once we have it? And do we fully understand what this information is trying to say?

This concept is showcased in the world of sports. Never before in sports history have fans been more knowledgeable. We know more about our favorite players and teams than ever before. From advanced statistics, to minor league performance, to whether they are a vegetarian or not, the internet has provided a vast amount of information about players and teams. And we are consuming that information at an alarming rate. But do we know what we are doing with that information?

The information age has changed what it means to be a fan. It has now become an arms race of gathering information. In many cases, I believe that this information is not gathered for any insightful purpose. It is gathered simply to prove how much of a fan you really are. Because unlike the days of old, when a simple check of a boxscore and a ballcap announced your team allegiance, fans today are under near daily attack to prove that they are a “real fan.” The problem is, no one can seem to agree on what a “real fan” is. It is no longer enough to be a fan. You must be a “real fan.” One who possesses all the information that is available. Never mind that possessing such information is impossible.

Don’t know or understand advanced statistics? Not a real fan. Don’t know the teams’batting average from 1997? Not a real fan. Can’t name the 2nd baseman for the AA team? Not a real fan. The internet has made being a fan a never-ending battle to essentially “keep up with the Joneses.”

But, unlike the Gutenberg printing press or the Industrial Age, the internet not only provides the information. It provides a medium in which to express how one interprets that information. Which brings us to the blogosphere.

Sports blogs come in all shapes and sizes. Media criticism, gossip, or, likely most popular, fan blogs. Fan blogs, I would venture to guess, make up the vast majority of sports blogs in existence. They are people with no access to the team beyond what anyone else can access. They watch games, read articles, listen to talk radio and they filter all of that information through their particular viewpoint of their team. And chances are, if they have chosen to devote the amount of time it takes to constantly write on a subject, they like that subject.

Recently however, amongst Padres fans, it is not only not enough to be a fan or support the team, it is a badge of disgrace. You are branded a fool or worse, uninformed, should you root for the Padres and attend games and wear their apparel proudly. This seems to be a relatively new phenomenon created by not only the near unlimited amount of information now available to fans but also a soapbox on which to share this information to 100s if not 1000s of people.

Of course, these fans are not simply sharing information. What they are really doing is sharing their interpretation of facts they’ve gathered. Which brings us back to the primary problem. The amount of information emboldens people to come to conclusions. Whether they fully understand that information or not. A point was made in Nate Silver’s book in which he states that the more educated someone is on a subject, the less likely they are to listen to opposing viewpoints or change their mind. There is a section of Padres fans where this is true. But they have taken it a step further. Because it’s not enough that they are “true fans” and see the charade of Padres ownership and management for what it is. They need you to believe the same.

The opposite end of the spectrum is equally to blame. There are fans that “Keep the Faith” no matter what. Which is fine and a fine way to go about being a fan. Unless you harbor more cynical or critical opinions of the team. Disagree with a move by the front office? Don’t agree with the lineup? Resigned to the fact that Chase Headley will be traded? “How dare you criticize the team! A true fan keeps the faith no matter what!”

A true fan. This is the heart of the issue. Because some truly believe that they are the gatekeepers of fandom. But rest assured, you are not. No one reading this right now is empowered to determine what does and does not make a “real fan.” And blogs are merely the medium of the fan.

I write this blog because I like to write and I like the Padres. How I choose to use this tiny part of the internet is controlled only by myself. Anything written here should only be construed to be my opinion and no one else’s. I don’t purport to speak for anyone else nor does anyone else on this site. In fact, only one post in this site’s extremely short history can be construed of as being the opinion of the group. And that is the very first one. If you don’t care for or disagree with what is written here, there’s another article from another writer with a different viewpoint coming up the next day. Moreover, the internet is accesible to all. Blogs are free to start. Go for it.

If I choose to be critical of a certain move or decision of the team, then so be it. If I choose to celebrate the history of a team that provides me with endless amount of joy and entertainment, then so be it. This is the kind of fan I choose to be.

You are not a better fan because you are critical of the team. Or because you keep the faith no matter what. Or because you have Rain Man’s level of historical knowledge of the team. Or because you understand a pitcher’s xFIP.

The internet has provided us with a wealth of knowledge the likes of which has never before been seen. It’s information that provides more insight into a sport we all love. We can be more educated fans, understand the game better than ever before. But it also makes us more unlikely to listen to an opposing viewpoint. Because for all the information you possess, there is no definitive “right” answer when it comes to sports.

Except that the Dodgers suck. Obviously.

 

You can find my nonsense at Padres Public every Friday. And follow me on Twitter @LeftCoastBias for 140 characters worth of nonsense on a variety of subjects ranging from Padres to Pearl Jam to PGA Golf. And I like alliteration.

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