UPDATE – In the interests of maintaining the debate, I’ve posted some further thoughts and responses to some of the people who contacted me following this post…
I’ve written before about how commenting and forums leeched my will to exist as a videogames journalist. Briefly: The effort of writing interestingly about toys for a website wasn’t worth the negative, self-aggrandising comments I couldn’t ignore.
But reading the recent timeline of @Glinner (Graham Linehan) has rekindled in me the exhausted disgust I have for the hate-talk which so many ugly minds take such care to express on the street-corners of the internet.
I am, I find myself forced to admit, lucky. The only insult directed at me was ‘liar’. The only thing assaulted was my knowledge, and the only thing questioned was the judgement of my employers in repeatedly paying me a salary. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t upset.
Yet for the past few months more and more writers online have exposed the filth pushed into their inboxes by these ugly minds, the wholly unhuman conversations taking place on forums, the wilful wordassaults deposited in their comment fields.
There are thousands of words I can write about how these hideous people make me feel. There are a hundred articles you can read about the damaging and life-affecting consequences these bellowers openly relish causing. But we can all agree on this.
For my own part, the answer is clear: It is time to kill comments.
The majority of comments on websites dedicated to reporting (news, views, whatever) are there for simple reasons. When I worked online, we wanted comments after articles so we could gauge interest and so we could prep stories responding to what our readers would, we hoped, tell us they wanted to read.
At the same time, there is a fairly woolly hope that by opening your articles to comments you will promote discussion, community – and as a result, your readership will be retained and increased. This is an optimistic hope.
We all know the befuddling phenomenon of the ‘first!’ poster. We all know the ever-so-slightly shameful schadenfreud-ic glow of discovering a ‘first!’ poster whose post has appeared in second position.
We must all know that there’s a bell-curve here – the people who will never post a comment, whatever they think; the people who may or may not, depending perhaps more on what they ate for lunch than what they think; and the people for whom an empty comments field is, mentally, already prefixed with ‘first!” and whether they have thought or not, let alone read the piece above the comments, is irrelevant.
At this point, a confession. For years I was the unfortunate sufferer of the sort of ‘first!’-thinking in real life. A friend once enlightened me to the surprising news that “you don’t need to share everything that goes through your head”. I do not hold myself as a paragon of virtuous social skills.
And, let’s face it, how many of us went through a similar (however brief) phase of this unedited self-publishing when we first joined Twitter? Or with Facebook statuses? The hoary argument of non-adopters against social media, in that it’s all a bunch of people reporting their lunches bite-by-bite, has a grain of truth. But only for about five seconds.
Because there’s something wonderful about Twitter which has become a really powerful attribute recently – your Tweets are visible. Everyone and anyone can read them. They are recorded, and even if you delete that off-hand comment you made, chances are that if your profile is even slightly above the parapet, someone will have screen-grabbed it.
And Twitter is moderated. And moderated by the people of Twitter. Abuse does not go unchallenged or unreported or unfollowed. It is not tolerated. In fact, there’s more supportive community spirit on Twitter than there would be if you came under verbal assault by a stranger on your morning commute. Twitter really is a community.
So explain to me why comments are still relevant. There isn’t a website in the world which, if it wanted to, couldn’t replace all of its commenting fields below articles with a Twitter-linked app and then reap the benefits of improved conversation.
On Twitter you are answerable. You have an identity, one which the spread of social media has made a stronger and more visible part of your actual life, an identity so hard-locked into your real world that you have a very real interest in avoiding any reputation damage that might come to it.
The benefits are massive. No comments field would ever trolled, because if you spread your ugly mind onto it you’d be posting that ugly mind onto Twitter, making your comments unavoidably connected with your actual identity, your real world.
Or, alternatively, the false-face you created to avoid tarnishing your actual social media reputation would simply be reported as abusive, or blocked, shutting you out of the conversation you worked so hard to abuse for your own pathetic ends.
And the drawbacks? If you have a problem with signing up to Twitter (perhaps Facebook would be another partner) then I’m sorry, but you don’t really seem like the person who either cares enough to comment or who has acceptable reasons for avoiding a trackable, graspable online identity. Want to be part of the conversation? Then you have to sign up.
Or, if you feel that 140 characters (outside of longer-form Twitter apps) is too small a space to let your comment breathe, then I have news for you – publishing to the internet is free. Blogs are, literally, everywhere. If you have a lot to say then write a blog about it and Tweet the first line as a comment, or the title.
Commenting is easy, but writing is hard. You have to think about your view, consider how it should be expressed, structure your argument or response in a way which best presents your points. It’s effort. But if you take the effort to write, then there will always be people who will read it. Of course if what you want to write is an ugly attack on another person then bad news – you are, thankfully, going to be easy to ignore.
I do not care about the technical aspects of this solution. I do not care if you think Twitter shouldn’t possess the monopoly on online conversation (because, hell, it already does). I know it can be done, it just has to be decided. If you want to argue against the suggestion on grounds of how it just doesn’t work technically, then go ahead. But I won’t be listening.
What I care about is hitting the ugly minds where it hurts. What I care about is making these people unacceptable online and cutting them out of the conversation. What I care about is turning these ugly people into the back-alley pariahs they deserve to be, or more optimistically, what I care about is educating these people to the consequences of their own actions and to the personal responsibility that free-speech is actually built upon.
If Twitter can bring people onto the streets to protest for their human rights, if it can organise parties and positive gatherings so easily, if it can club together and support a charity or help an ailing bookshop find its feet, then Twitter can and is changing the world.
And if Twitter can change the world, then changing the sorry state of irresponsible online behaviour is small potatoes by comparison. Let’s do this, okay? Let’s make things right.
If you want to comment on this piece, I would be honoured. But use Twitter. There are no comments on this blog. [UPDATE: WordPress' brilliant new Facebook/Twitter comments crossover means I can now offer comments on this blog]