Comment is free, for better or worse
I’ve been meaning for ages to say something about the brief experience of writing a column for the Guardian. I’m prompted to do it belatedly now in the light of the current discussion (here and here, for example) about online comments/poisonous tweets/trolling. Not that I felt I was at the sharp end of all that, and certainly not in comparison to some poor souls (although do I really mean Louise Mensch?). But what hasn’t received a great deal of comment in the latest debates is the general tone of online comments which forms the backdrop against which the more obvious acts of nastiness and lunacy get played out.
The column was prematurely terminated, as I always knew it might be, for cost-cutting reasons. And I had somewhat mixed feelings about that. It was undoubtedly disappointing, because I was getting into my stride and had topics that I’d hoped to be able to cover. But it was also something of a relief. The column went onto the Comment is Free site, which meant that it got a lot of web feedback. And this is always a somewhat odd beast, but I hadn’t experienced it to quite this degree before. I had been encouraged to engage with the responses, to the extent of making comments of my own. But I’d begun to find that rather draining.
This was not simply a matter of time. I was finding the tone of the discussion wearying, not least because I found myself responding in the same spirit. And that disturbed me.
I’d discovered before the typical tenor of web feedback when a piece I wrote on economics for the FT was picked up and debated – or rather, dissected and derogated – on some economics blogs. On that occasion I’d been naively surprised at how aggressive some of the posts were. As it happened, I responded on that occasion to one to these threads, which opened up a debate with the (extremely well informed) blogger Dave Altig that ended up being productive and constructive: I felt that we’d both listened and taken on board some aspects of the other point of view. This left me thinking that it can be valuable to engage with critics online – I’ve subsequently discovered that that is sometimes true and sometimes not.
All the same, that episode gave me a glimpse of the snarky, embittered tone that characterises quite a lot of online feedback. By no means all of the Guardian comments were of that nature. Some were very thoughtful and informed, particularly in my piece on science funding. But after having written several of these columns, some common themes among the critical comments began to emerge.
The most sobering was this. I have tended, again naively, to assume that when one writes something in public, people read it and then decide whether they agree or not. Some might decide you’ve written a pile of tosh, and might tell you so. That’s fine. But now I realise that this isn’t how it works. It seems that many readers – at least the ones who post comments, which is of course an extremely particular and self-selecting group – don’t read what you’ve said in the first place. I don’t mean that in the sense of that annoying rhetorical accusation that “you obviously didn’t even read what I said”. I mean that they read the words through such a cloud of preconceptions that the real meaning simply cannot register. Many readers, it seems, read just what they want/expect to read, which is often a ready-made version of an idea that they disagree with. The disagreement then comes not so much from a difference of opinion but from a lack of comprehension. And let me say that this comprehension doesn’t seem to have any correlation with education or professional status – I’m shocked at how poorly some scientists seem able to understand basic English. It almost makes me wonder how the scientific literature functions.
There are some other recurring strategies and tropes. Chief among them is a sense of immense resentment – who the hell are you to be writing this stuff? You call yourself a scientist/journalist/expert, but you don’t even know the most basic facts! It’s again very sobering to discover that there has presumably always been this burning rancour against people who write in the media that only now has been given a means of expression. And so the feedback becomes a litany of one-upmanship, like the chap who couldn’t possibly imagine that anyone writing a science column could have managed the awesome feat of actually reading Jonathan Swift. It was this vying for the intellectual high ground – or rather, a crude “I know more than you” – that I could see myself succumbing to, and I didn’t like it.
Then there are the comments that are clearly meant to be gems of caustic wit but which are merely incomprehensible onanism. “This article is pure rot. The knitting of shreddies, however small, by Grandmothers can only be seen as a force for good. Cold milk and plenty of sugar.” Yes, well thank you. This isn’t a big deal, but it is strangely irritating.
And there’s the question of anonymity. I can’t help feeling (and it’s been said countless times, I know) that the tone of the feedback and the fact that it is presented by folk who conceal their names (even just a given name – I’m heartened to see that most of the [by definition] lovely folks who comment on my blog are comfortable with that), and who choose instead macho monikers such as “CrapRadar”, is all of a piece. Why this issue of utter concealment? So full marks to those appearing (I assume) as themselves and not some cartoon character. I don’t mean to imply that anyone who doesn’t use their own name is some kind of craven bully, but just that this aspect of web culture is not without its problems.
Oh, I know it could be so much worse. What we’ve heard recently about online misogyny includes some very grim stuff. In comparison, I’m not sure that anything on CiF qualifies as trolling exactly, and some of the comments are interesting and funny. But I do find it a little dispiriting to discover that so much of what passes as debate on these forums is really a jaded effort to be as cynical, dismissive and superior as one can be. And that presumably this attitude had always been out there, longing for the platform that it now has.