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It was a story that should have signalled the end of an seemingly childish phenomenon. In August 2012, 'FootballAgent49', a Twitter user with over 38,000 followers, admitted that he had no knowledge or information regarding transfer dealings, and had simply been playing on the gullibility of those foolish enough to read and retweet his empty promises. Rather than wearing a suit and tie to work, as his public photo suggested, this was nothing more than an 18-year-old amusing himself and his friends.
'I am writing to tell you that, no, I am not a 'football agent' or an 'ITK',' he wrote in confession. 'I have been fooling you gullible idiots with my fake transfer stories. Whilst I am here,' he continued, 'I can also point out that there is no such thing as an ITK or agents on Twitter. Anyone with an IQ in double figures would realise this.' As if there was any doubt.
Last year, I wrote an article regarding ITK (In The Know, for those of you that have mercifully not experienced the acronym), in which I described the futile fury being directed at those responsible for the creation of such personas. Who were the fools, those who served up the bulls**t or those who greedily lapped it up before complaining that they had an upset stomach?
At the time I feared that this was no passing fad, but instead just a growing trend, and such suspicions have been entirely vindicated. This summer, largely due to the necessity for both Manchester United and Liverpool (the two biggest generators of reader traffic and interest in the country) to invest in their squad following underachievement and loss of star player respectively, ITK culture has hit even greater heights. Those gorging on such nonsense have taken to bathing in the bulls**t that they were previously content to just swallow.
The height of such blather has surely been the proposed (or even supposed) signing of Arturo Vidal from Juventus by United. Ever since a move was first mooted in mid-June, we have been fed a (at least) daily dose of 'news' updating us on Vidal's situation by way of rumour, counter-rumour and counter-counter-rumour, all despite the fact that there has seemingly been little to no progress in the deal. This is the age of 'no news' as news.
At the heart (or should that be a**ehole?) of the Vidal saga lies the ITK, the social media sensation, the faceless entity that claims to deal in the most valuable of currencies, transfer information. These are snake oil salespeople, preaching to an adoring and malleable crowd. Social media has been awash with those claiming to have an inside knowledge of the deal from their 'contacts' in England, Italy and Chile. These are typically vague injections of hope, enough information to prolong interest but not too much to make a swift backtracking impossible.
Rather than amusement or bemusement, such bizarre claims have simply been accepted and shared, despite doubts or cynicism that may remain in the minds of the impressionable, and so the cloud of guff quickly grows to almost cumulonimbus proportions. Social media has significantly reduced the 'six degrees of separation' concept - a few shares from higher-profile users and dripfeed quickly becomes a flood.
Whilst it may initially appear an odd choice of pastime, the psychology of the ITK is actually entirely obvious. In a society obsessed with raw fame rather than worth, Twitter followers and Facebook likes are seen as appropriate barometers of notoriety and distinction, no matter what methods are used to gain them. A survey in 2010 asked children what they wanted to be when they grew up, and the most popular answer was simple: Famous. If that can be achieved whilst sitting in your pants and without any degree of hard work, all the better.
However, despite the image portrayed above, ITK is no longer merely the domain of the teenager in a room, but has now instead taken on an altogether more 'professional' facade. Simple Twitter or Facebook posts are now supplemented by (equally faceless) websites, presumably run by multiple individuals. The presence of advertisements on such sites indicates that revenue is being made from web traffic generated. Does that expose such creations to accusations of fraud? It's a thin line between misinformation and wilful deceit.
The term 'ITK' must now also sadly include certain sections of the media. Whilst it is clear that certain transfer stories are written in good faith (and for one reason or another simply do not come to fruition), recent seasons have seen a sharp increase in inaccurate claims or reports. It's difficult to believe all are honest errors - elements of the media have simply become a willing participant in ITK culture. It appears that some have seen the easy clicks to be garnered through spurious transfer chatter, and cannot resist the temptation. That undermines the genuine journalism carried out by those (both national and local) that manage to uncover genuine transfer scoops.
Looking through our gossip columns from the January transfer window, I can estimate that around 6% of named targets for the biggest draw clubs (Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool) ended up in transfer. As you move towards the clubs that generate less traffic, that percentage increases - the lesser potential audience, the less transfer stories to be clicked on. Coincidence, I'm sure.
An example of the farce can again be found in the Vidal 'saga', when last month the British press reported that United would launch a bid for the Chilean 'according to Gazzetta dello Sport'. A translation of the story in Gazzetta revealed the fateful words 'according to reports in England' - this was media hyperbole threatening to eat itself.
However, whilst those propagandising deserve some blame, most of our censure must surely be reserved for those that provide oxygen for such fabrication. ITK culture would fail to exist if supporters could treat these rumours with the contempt they deserve, but consistently prove themselves incapable of doing so. These are the basic principles of supply and demand.
There is a logical way to deal with such misinformation. If you see someone promising you details of a major transfer on social media, ask yourself three salient questions:
1) Realistically, how many people are likely to have inside information of such an important deal?
2) Is the person giving the information likely to be one of those people?
3) If this person does have sensitive information, are they really likely to be so obviously making that public, thus risking the collapse of the deal?
It's simple logic, of course, but lessons that fans are currently blindly refusing to heed, instead allowing an overwhelming addiction to football and its soap opera to rule heads.
Supporters have become encased within football's bubble, their own happiness indelibly correlated with the fortunes of their football clubs. If they read something positive, they believe it, because doing so provides that fillip, that hope of improvement. If they read something negative then they automatically disagree, defensively over-protecting their club. The ever-growing chasm between a football supporter's obsession with their team's fortunes and the infinitesimally small difference they can actually make creates a vacuum that needs filling. In the absence of live football, transfer hearsay will do.
Bizarrely, there is a quote from the bible that describes the scenario perfectly: 'A time will come when people will not listen to accurate teachings. Instead, they will follow their own desires and surround themselves with teachers who tell them what they want to hear.' The ITK can say whatever they like, as long as it is what their followers want to hear. Deals are always 'close to being completed' rather than 'looking unlikely', you will notice.
Perhaps this is merely an inevitable consequence of an audience that is increasingly ready to greedily accept its information in dumbed-down form (there is a reason the Daily Mail's sidebar of shame exists), requiring their football fix in a five-minute window whilst flicking through the photos from an ex-partner's holiday in Marbella. We have less time for detail, and so are prepared to accept fantastical misinformation because it sates our urge, at least temporarily. We'll need another hit tomorrow, and so the names, prices and clubs must change again. And so it continues ad infinitum.
It all just seems so utterly vacuous, as what was once the mere sideshow increasingly forces itself into centre stage, the slurry of ITK culture beginning to drown all reasonable debate. For the bubble to burst, the once rational majority need to declare themselves tired of what appears to be a very ingenuous trend. I won't hold my breath.
Daniel Storey - Follow him on Twitter