A few weeks ago, on a low-rumbling hangover that never threatened to push me into the abyss, something very interesting happened to me (and about 16 other people): I started rigorously documenting my Football Manager experience online.
For those not versed in Football Manager, it is a video game in which you, well, assume the role of a football manager and attempt, very slowly and carefully, to guide the club of your choice to glory. You get to do things such as answer emails and renegotiate the annual contract of your under-18s coach. Occasionally, you can sign a right-back. There is a button after every match that gives you the option to throw a water bottle.
All of this happens in a bruise-purple matrix of words and numbers. The matches you oversee are essentially two spreadsheets fighting. It is less a game and more a part-time job that causes you more anguish than you ever thought possible.
This, of course, is why I love it – and will plough hundreds of hours into the game every year. Over the course of every game load, I am developing a small vision of the future unique to me. There is a Premier League centre-back I am convinced is due a real-life rally because I have seen a glimpse of how, statistically, he is going to play in five or six years. There is a Portuguese regen – a computer-generated player – to whom I am almost paternally attached because of the ease with which he converted from lively winger to consistent goal-involvement striker over the course of two seasons (I am Papa Wenger, he is Henry).
I have spent 600 hours of my life since October creating a fantasy world where Manchester United bagging a Ukrainian midfielder who doesn’t exist is incredibly agonising to me. Until recently, none of this mattered at all to anyone else.
Then I started putting screenshots of every game I won (and lost) on Instagram. A very, very small and very, very dedicated group of fellow Football Managerheads got back to me, telling me centre-backs to scout and throw-in routines to try; they offered a rapt audience for my end-of-season run-in with my longtime foes at Old Trafford.
On that drizzly Sunday, wrapped in a hoodie, with my girlfriend stranded on a sofa downstairs, occasionally saying: “Can you stop going on about Football Manager on Instagram Stories?” I watched as my meticulously assembled Brighton squad – top of the league for 30 weeks of the season – lost and drew their last two games to lose the league by a mere four points. A video game has never made me feel so bad. But then, a stirring chorus in my Instagram inbox: “We go again.”
What was interesting to me about this experiment in being boring online was just how nostalgic it made me for web 1.0. Before all this – before the big beasts of social media, the three or four websites we go to on a loop – the early web was a lively, weird, niche little place, made of feverishly constructed Geocities pages and strange Flash games and the b3ta newsletter. Now, every time I tweet, I am supposed to remember that I am maintaining a “brand” and that I ought to second-guess my own thoughts – is this funny? Will enough people like it? – not just ask: “Is this interesting to me?”
We live in a world where our expression of ourselves online is not exactly false, but controlled. TikTok dances, tweets about Bridgerton, confessional vlogs, photo dump Instagram posts: all of them are part of the great online performance. But Football Manager wasn’t anything like that: it was me, the Everton centre-back Jarrad Branthwaite and about 20 other people, all coming together to care about one thing that absolutely didn’t matter.
Can the web ever get back to that innocent time? Maybe, but only if we carve out little enclaves for it to do so. We have already lost three games this season and I need all the help I can get. If you have a good free-kick routine, I will see you on Instagram.
• Joel Golby is a writer for the Guardian and Vice and the author of Brilliant, Brilliant, Brilliant Brilliant Brilliant. Adrian Chiles is away