Hear me out on this one.
Yes, I know, I know... your enjoyment of just about everything on the web can, at times, be instantly spoiled by making the decision to look at the comments and see what other readers have thought about it. Look at reviews of the films you love on imdb, or books you love on Amazon, and you'll instantly be able to find half a dozen critics who've decided that the thing you love is the thing they hate. And, more than that, readers have found that they can 'have their say' on news stories, sometimes ones involving death, suicide and extreme situations, which has introduced a whole new level of callousness, nastiness and bile to public debate, as well as providing a handy platform for armchair racists and bigots of all kinds to get ham-fistedly hammering away on their foam-flecked keyboards.
Yes yes yes, all of that. Some sites have become tainted by the presence of so many spiky kneejerkers 'below the line' that sometimes you wish that websites could have a warning before the comments appear and a 'here be dragons' notice to keep the unwary away from the inevitable slew of "Well, he deserved to die" or "As an indigenous Briton I'm in the MINORITY in my own COUNTRY" and so on. There are the trolls, the "FIRST!"s, the flame wars, the regular spiders who must just sit at home waiting for something vaguely liberal to be said anywhere so they can leap into action. Sometimes I imagine that a big red flashing alarm and klaxxons go off in these people's houses whenever something relatively humane turns up on Comment is Free, just so that they can leap into action almost instantaneously to dismiss it as Communism, or PC gawn mad, or whatever crime it is apparently meant to be this week, or this minute.
All this I know. And we can all find examples everywhere of these things happening. We've all seen the poison spill out under even the most benign YouTube video, as racist or sexist or nasty fights break out in the comments. I like to call them 'vomments' but then that's just me.
But... it's not all like that. And I think it's wrong to dismiss everyone as a "messageboard cunt", though of course some of these examples might lead you to think otherwise. No, there is wheat among the chaff. There is insight in the pile of hatred. And there's something else as well - a lot of the time on here, I've found most of the comments on stories to be interesting, enlightening, insightful. Of course I'm biased because my readers are the best examples of human beings in the world, but that's just a blessing I'm going to have to live with. But I don't think I'm alone in getting good, intelligent feedback, as opposed to the usual "lol fuck off" rubbish that can exist elsewhere, or sidetrack any debate into something tedious and annoying.
You can argue about whether moderation has something to do with this or not, and as I've explained at length before, I choose to moderate because it just feels right for me to do so. I'd never forgive myself if something really hatefully unpleasant got posted and I wasn't around to move it. I can't do the 'see no evil' business because I just don't think I want to have that attitude towards the content of my website. I can't wash my hands of what's on here, whether it's posted by me or someone else. I'm responsible for it all, and that's the way I prefer it.
A lot of comments below articles actually show the readers out to be highly intelligent and articulate - and, crucially, they add to the story, rather than taking away. Many are the times when readers here have not just corrected errors - which is a pain, but I appreciate it - but added new information which puts things into a wider context, or provides more evidence of something, or adds to our understanding of the situation.
Other times, of course, online comments can really be entertaining. Take for example my internet friend Konnolsky, who has provided some stellar online comments from his Smolensk butcher's shop - here's an excerpt from the latest, about Liverpool's impending takeover:
Hello! Here in my Smolensk butcher’s shop assistant Yuri plenty worry today. He passionate supporter FC Liverpool of Liverpool – as well as 24 other teams. He got tattoo of beloved Fernando Torres on his ass. Idea that Chinese businessman take over team fill him with trepidating.
Be clear. Yuri not support current US owners, Stadler and Waldorf. These terrible men typical of everything wrong with Western capitalist model, which cause current global economic crisis. They buy club with fantasy money create by mortgaging non-existent property. Borrowing on borrowing, debt on debt, non-existent wealth, assets, ownership and managerial control based on no visible business talent: this is discredited approach of Western finance and banking. (That UK banks now post record profit on back of taxpayer bailout, fail lend to small business, while continue help projects like US imperialist ownership of sports clubs, mean it only matter of time before reckoning. We hear Bank of England Governor and darts legend Mervyn King plan to call them in for stern telling off.)
There have been other examples down the years, as well, and they're still carrying on to this day. The reviews of David Hasselhoff's Best Of album are still coming in, and I vividly remember the tears falling down my face when I first saw the repetition of 'Hot Shot City is particularly good'. And what about the huge canvas print of Paul Ross?
Drill me like Texas. , 17 Dec 2008
By Rococo Choufleur "Ciao" (Eddleston, Peebleshire) - See all my reviews
As a busy working mother of two, who's a mother, and a businesswoman, and busy, I don't have time to mess around. I need food on the go, and a toothpaste I can trust. I also need to know that, when I need to know that my Paul Ross print is over the mantlepiece, it really IS over the mantlepiece. This one is. Which is what I like about it. My husband, meanwhile, who's a busy working father of two, who's a father, and a businessman, and also busy (except every second Tuesday when bellringing practice from 4pm-5pm is his only commitment) likes the fact that this Paul Ross print is wipe-clean. (My busy working husband has occasionally spilled his yoghurt over Paul's jowly mancheeks.)
Wonderful. You might say to me "oh, it's all right taking the piss out of Hasselhoff and Ross, but those comments don't really add anything, do they?" - but they are a wonderful source of fun, more than anything, they are what they are and they're not meant to be anything other than that. The ones on Littlejohn's Britain are also rather spectacular, though in that instance they're chipping away at the idiot who wrote it in the first place, which I heartily endorse:
'Littlejohn's Britain' is the third instalment of the eclectic 'Littlejohn Mysteries', and arguably the best yet. As the novel commences we are reintroduced to maverick sleuth Richard Littlejohn; a straight-talking, no-nonsense freelance detective who stops at nothing to get answers. But Littlejohn has changed: no longer the bright-eyed optimist he once was, the events of the previous book, Murder at Mbongo Hall, have left him embittered and disillusioned with the job he once loved. However, it's not long before an anonymous tip-off from a civil servant draws Littlejohn deep into the heart of a political conspiracy which goes all the way to Downing Street.
Tightly written and highly exhilarating, 'Littlejohn's Britain' rockets along at the pace of a runaway train and never lets up. From the initial discovery of the dead prostitute ("She had it coming," a gruff Littlejohn observes with peerless humour) through to the unspeakable evil of the government's nefarious 'recycling' scheme, every turn of the page brings a shocking new twist which will never fails to excite. In particular, the climatic showdown atop the London Eye is worthy of literature's finest.
'Littlejohn's Britain' is rife with the trademark humour which has already made the series a modern classic ("bloody speed cameras!" should be the nation's new catchphrase), but it also explores a darker and more sinister side of Littlejohn's past. Tales of drinking, debauching and even a fleeting homosexual encounter are all gradually peeled away as the story progresses to reveal a complex and ultimately tragic character. With the addition of some truly horrific villains -- the scheming 'Two Jags' Prescott, PC-gone-mad Trevor Phillips, and psychotic gay Johann Hari -- the recipe is complete, and the result is some of the greatest work ever committed to print. 'Littlejohn's Britain' is simply a masterpiece; essential reading for anyone who can handle the action.
It's all about who has the power and who doesn't. We, the masses, don't have the power, and there was a time when we didn't have any. The best we could hope for was a place on the letters page of the newspaper if we were lucky, and even then it'd probably be pushed out by some batty old maiden aunt twatting on about squirrels or something.
But now we all have the chance to write, and say what we think - we have the chance to tell columnists and reporters what we think of them, and that's a splendid development. They're not looking down on us so much from their lofty perches any more; we're on a more even footing, even if they're getting paid spectacular amounts of money to write their stuff and we're wasting our own time writing ours.
No matter. The playing field is levelling out a bit, and reader comments are part of that. When Jan Moir trickled out her stupidity in the wake of Stephen Gately's death, there was nowhere to hide because there was a way of people making their feelings known - not through the traditional dusty corridors of the PCC but instantaneously. This is the world we're in now, and it's an exciting one.
The boundaries haven't gone completely, of course. There are still columnists who believe that there's a reason why they're the ones holding forth for money and the rest of us are just graffitiing their pages - because they're just so much more intelligent than us, and they understand things so much better than we silly proles who don't know what we're talking about - but their powers are fading. They are few, and we are many.
It's wrong to dismiss reader comments as an avalanche of hate, or the great unwashed having their say. Often that happens where people with extreme views know they can congregate safely - I'm thinking of BBC Have Your Say and the Mail's website as a couple of good examples - but there are other places right across the web where intelligent debate is welcomed, people comment with the intention of adding something rather than taking something away, and you can read an awful lot of great stuff 'below the line'.
I think we're all learning how to get used to this. I hope so, anyway. Of course there will be a lot of chatter to sift through, and a lot of toxic kneejerkers are only too happy to use their keyboards to throw in a few verbal hand grenades. But I think online commenting is maturing. It's a way of engaging with readers and it's something to be embraced. There are times when it's not really appropriate - I'm thinking of stories about death and tragedy, for example, or the kind of people who just go "Ew, she looks horrible" on celebrity stories - but in other places, at other times, it can be something that is really worth reading.
Obviously I hope you won't let me down, and will fill the comments box below this post with an avalanche of "FIRST!" and "LOL GAY".
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Hello. I'm a Bristol-based writer and soon-to-be-redundant journalist. You can read more about me and the Enemies site here, or follow me on Twitter. Email me if you like - antonvowl at live dot co dot uk
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