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Refereeing Mayo fans

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John Gunnigan polices a wide range of comments on his renowned Mayo GAA Blog

Ger Flanagan

IT was a February morning in 2007 when the now famous Mayo GAA Blog was formed.
Its creator, life-long Mayo supporter John Gunningan, was at a loose end on that particular day and with double All-Ireland winning manager John O’Mahony just having been appointed to the helm of the senior team, the blog was going to chronicle his inevitable success with his native county.
“That plan went a bit haywire,” Gunningan, or Willie Joe as he his know on the blog, told The Mayo News last week.
By the time O’Mahony departed the scene in 2010, the Mayo GAA Blog had found its feet in what now seems an almost pre-historic cyber world.
“There was no Facebook or Twitter,” Gunningan said. “There was no social media as such, anything out there would have been message boards or discussion boards, which was all the rage.
“Blogs were a thing at the time, but they were very much another type. They were edgy, people kind of throwing shapes and trying to be the coolest guy in the room. I was looking for something different.
“I wanted a kind of biased platform if you like, something that you saw in the soccer world, which would be in one camp. Obviously the soccer stuff was outrageous because you’re heaping abuse at everyone outside your tribe, so I didn’t want it to go like that either.”
Fast forward 13 years, and 20 million cumulative hits later, the Blog is now the go-to online discussion forum or history database for Mayo GAA supporters all over the world.
The arrival of James Horan’s first tenure in charge coincided with the surge in popularity of the Blog and saw the online behaviours of the traffic shifting towards comment threads.
“The first comment didn’t get posted until about a year after I set it up,” he said. “I could see there was traffic coming in, but they didn’t really post comments and the build-up was very gradual.
“But it certainly got rocking when James Horan arrived as manager and it was then I saw the volume of comments were so great, and people were being more than loose in terms of what they were saying.”

Rules and policing
As the theme of the comments leaned towards abuse from certain quarters, it prompted Gunningan to establish rules, which he policed diligently. Much of it, he said, was written in the heat of the moment, but he was no longer going to accept personal attacks on players and also felt a duty to protect the contributors from bringing legal issues on themselves or on him.
“It [abuse] definitely became more of a thing and you could see some players were getting piled on and others not,” he stated. “And even more when controversy arrived, which frequently did, or Mayo would lose a game, that’s when you’d know trouble would be coming.
“I know myself you might be fuming coming out of a game and say stuff in them 30 minutes that no sane person would say, and this is the problem I encountered online and which is commonplace on social media, people feel this desperate need to tell the world the most unhinged things in their minds.
“In times of controversy, what happens is people appear out of nowhere but appear fully formed with opinions and agendas and that has happened on a few occasions, most notably last year.
“It lead me to do something that I never did before and pull down the shutters and not allow comments on it, which was very hard to do but I had to because I knew it was going to end up in some sort of legal trouble.”
Eventually Gunnigan decided that the debates would focus on on-field affairs, ‘as opposed to off-field shenanigans’.
He points out that 99 percent of contributors are no problem at all, but it’s the one percent that threatens the bubble. However, he’s noticed that the ecosystem is now being respected and self-policed by the many Blog lovers who value it for what it is.
He does concede that ‘if you let things slide at all, it goes out of control’, so regimental standard keeping is important.
For Gunningan, the blog is a labour of love, a platform for like-minded Mayo supporters from far away and close to home to stay connected.
“It’s funny how you connect with people you’ve never met on it, and then there’s obviously loads of people that I have met through it,” he said. “So it’s been great and educational.
“I think the comment side has been the most difficult part of it, but the fact there’s a great community and they’re very engaged and valued, with even supporters from counties contributing without having to feel they will be bombarded.
“You can see particularly the way social media has gone, that there’s an awful lot of nastiness out there. An awful lot of abuse. There’s some seriously bad actors out there, whose only agenda is to abuse, to belittle everything.
“And you do wonder what motivates people to get up in the morning and behave like that.”