Why can’t I comment on John Waters’s article about how horrible comments are?
Technology can be deeply irritating. On the day before John Waters writes a stinging critique of user generated comments in general and a thread on the Observer’s site in illustrative particular, our own comments technology, Have Your Say, crashes and burns horribly. We are working very hard to fix it as quickly as possible, but it means a potentially interesting debate on the subject is stifled.
The column is, as you would expect, didactic and sweeping. John Waters has previously ired bloggers with his comments. And he makes no reference to the fact that (pre-moderated) comments appear on this site and sometimes on his own articles. But he definitely has a point. The level of gratuitous abuse, foul language and general nastiness to be found among the user comments of many reputable sites is disturbing, and you’d never see it in the print editions.
To go to the other end of the spectrum, Stephen Fry’s reaction to a rather mild criticism of the quality of his Twitter comments, which caused him to declare that he would tweet no more, is instructive. In a way, the innocuousness of the original comment, that Fry’s tweets were ‘a bit… boring….’ helps to clarify some of the issues a bit… better. Because the issue here is a pretty fundamental one of agreeing acceptable levels of discourse, a pretty fundamental matter in any civilized society.
Newspapers in particular have been at pains to point to Fry’s bi-polar issues (which he explored himself in an excellent TV programme). But really, is that relevant? He was feeling down. Somebody said something. Shock horror: people have feelings.
So what are the limits in social media? Or, indeed, any media? As Waters correctly observes, they do seem very different online. I don’t know about you, but I’m not normally in the habit of telling someone to their face that they’re ‘a bit boring’. Much less describing anyone as a ‘monstrous fucker’.
Fry himself mused in a recent blog post about the role of new media: ‘Twitter is to the public arena what the press itself was two hundred and fifty years ago — a new and potent force in democracy, a thorn in side of the established order of things.’
By implication, one should expect the sort of no-holds-barred hurly-burly which prevailed in the 18th century – no bad thing, say lots of people. But it’s hard to take this level of personal vitriol and abuse masquerading badly as debate, usually from anonymous sources. (Not, I hasten to add, on this blog, where all the commenters display the verbal dexterity and politesse of a particularly refined Jane Austen character).
Personally, I can live with ugly flak – try presenting a live radio talk show and you’ll understand what it’s like to have to deal with abusive texts. But I don’t particularly see why everyone else should have to put up with the sort of atrociously written, lowest common denominator garbage described in the column.
Read the article and, since we can’t open it for comments, tell us what you think here.