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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: November 5, 2009 @ 10:54 pm

    Why can’t I comment on John Waters’s article about how horrible comments are?

    Hugh Linehan

    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.

    • shellshock says:

      I see this blog is still limping along only thanks to the troll that is Barbara. This is the problem with premoderated posting. Who wants to wait hours to see their post in print, and then hours to see others, when you can zip over to the graun and get stuck in. Incidentally trolls like Barbara dont usually last long on CIF nor do the more abusive posters (they eventually get sin binned), but serously this site is embarrassing given the supposed Irish propensity for chat and blarney

    • Hugh Linehan says:

      Shellshock – I don’t think it’s taking too long to get your comment up. Do you?

    • gadfly55 says:

      So, Hugh L., what is the prospect of the IT providing the means to comment directly under a column of those journalists so brave as to tolerate free speech?

    • barbera O'Shcokenzy says:

      Anna G @37 Definitely no feminist agenda here but just let me say this and I think it is relevant in terms of gender balance in this thread, for example.

      To our detriment – the detriment of society in general – a movement – a women’s movement (that was happening, for the most part, gently, steadily to insinuate itself, or realise itself into a Western culture that no longer on account of advances in technology required physical strength as the main attribute/factor that allowed for a place in a workforce and which would lead to relative autonomy for any working person irrespective of gender) was usurped by an aggressive force that came to be known as Radical Feminism. Certain of the sisters’ fundamentalist ideals quickly overshadowed all other types of feminism (some quite benign) and any creditable women’s movements that didn’t have an “ism” tag. The sisters discovered power and began to play the same games that some of their gender counterparts revelled in – power games that they had challenged at the outset. And now there is an even greater destabilizing of society as that which is at the core/heart of society – the bond between men and women – is increasingly under stress. Gender war cries fill the air: “Boys are stupid, throw rocks at them!!” Misandry v. Misogyny is everywhere in evidence – schism between the sexes.

      What women were beginning to realise slowly but surely – organically – over time, was that that which is visible in our culture is not for the very most part informed by “the feminine”. Since the beginnings of Western civilization, Architecture, Art, The Arts, (especially Poetry) Philosophy and Science, for example, had been informed by ‘the masculine’ and thus along certain lines, ‘the shape of things’ was dictated and directed. That is to say, culture materialized in ‘the masculine’. Woman did/does not essentially feel ‘at home’, for example, in structures, which by design could only be described as phallic extensions. I am thinking of the Parthenon – an obvious example, with its Doric columns. Although this great structure was a temple to Athena, there is nothing “feminine” about it and undoubtedly, Athena was a male fantasy/ideal construct. That is not to say that the Parthenon is not beautiful. It is, of course, but there was nothing to compliment it – no feminine aesthetic – other than the sight of beautiful, silent Greek women in flimsy gossamer chitons flitting about between the Doric columns – and perhaps it suited them all. And what of interest was there for women in any of the great anthologies? Reams recorded of Ancient/modern philosophy, literature, poetry, which spoke to men, about men and of their great deeds – not skimping on the gory details for their pleasure and enjoyment? That is not to say that these great works were not great. Of course, they were but no woman’s voice was heard – other than words put into her mouth by this bard or that dramatist. But what was “she” thinking? That became the question and the past four decades (or so) have been categorised by theorist, Julia Kristeva as, “Women’s Time” and Kristeva warned of potential disaster on account of a certain type of feminism. So what have women been doing with their time? Has our society/culture become more “feminine friendly”? Has a gender balance been struck in our society/culture? Or have we allowed a group of fascist fundamentalists in women’s bodies to dictate the shape of things and essentially engender stalemate?

      Oh and @ Shellshock – JOHN WATERS and KEVIN MYERS are BRILLIANT and you are insufferable.

    • Alice says:

      Barbera, get a life! Or a job.

    • shellshock says:

      hi Hugh, yes agree TODAY the comments are quick in appearing. Still my point remains, you cant have a free flowing debate when everything you say has to be monitored first by the censors. Still as Barbara has singlehandedly killed the thread, I dont suppose it makes much difference.

    • barbera O'Shcokenzy says:

      @ Alice. Such wit! Such cerebral intensity! A veritable gem! Pray tell Alice? With what wondrous agency do you travail? Funderland? Me, I’m on sabbatical – all the time in the world.

    • Zacharias McGonagall says:

      Reading this blog and its comments is, frankly, the most fun I’ve had all day. (Gadfly and Barbera’s exchange had me in stitches).

      I think you’ve just got another reader, Hugh…

    • excuse Alice but Barbera O’ has the right to speak her mind. bug off!

      Patch Corcoran

    • barbera O'Shcokenzy says:

      @ Alice. Such wit! Verily I say! Such cerebral intensity! Pray tell Alice? With what wondrous agency do you travail? Funderland? Me, I’m on sabbatical – all the time in the world – so bring it on “sister” dear. By the way, in my opinion, the only way to get rid of a “dreamer” who trolls on and on is to ignore them and worse than the “dreamer” is the partisan rattle-snake which scans the thread (having said nothing about the topic) waiting to spit out/inject its “one-liner” venom. Address the topic. Ignore the “dreamers”. After all Big Hugh can shut them up any time at the touch of a delete button.

    • shellshock says:

      well Hugh, my message left at 12.11@5.06 has finally appeared on 13.11 at 13.46. how in the name of god can you carry on debate with that inordinate time delay. pathetic!

    • Hugh Linehan says:

      Shellshock. I moderate my own comments, which is not the most unusual thing in the world on a blog. I also, like many other people, have a life, and was moderating from a European city for the last few days. As it happens, I didn’t have WiFi access after 6pm (5pm your time,) so wasn’t in a position to post your comment until I got back to our green and pleasant isle this morning, whereupon I moderated it soon as I got in the door. So shoot me…

    • Eureka says:

      So what do you suggest Barbera, affirmative action?

    • barbera O'Shcokenzy says:

      During the days of the crashing of the comments technology in the Irish Times online, when no comments were posted under the various columns in the Opinion/Analysis section, it was an absolute pleasure to read the various columnists (especially JW, and what a wonderful piece also by Ruadhán Mac Cormaic (Paris Correspondent) last Friday (13th inst) entitled “Identity debate rouses passions of French public”. In fact, I think all of the columnists were writing very well last week and it must have been such a relief for them not to have to anticipate mostly assault by senseless abuse from the nether or underneath regions of their columns. Instead of getting ‘trapped’ in the madness of mostly badly written, badly thought out comments, the reader was more inclined to re-read the main article and reflect on the central idea. Whether or not the reader agreed with the particular viewpoint of the writer, whose writing at least, is always of a very high standard in this paper, one was better informed and if one felt strongly enough one way or another the option was always there to compose oneself (for a start) and then compose a letter to the editor or an e-mail to the columnist. I think it is much more civilized to have an online comments facility for challenging Opinion/Analysis as, for example, this forum where there is a moderator who interacts. Controlling the horizontal and the vertical in the formal or high-quality print media is more about maintaining standards than about controlling freedom of expression. Obviously, the comments technology problem is now sorted and the comments are back up but I am beginning to think it’s better to crash the trash.

    • shellshock says:


      so sorry hugh I didn’t realise you are the moderator!! I thought the IT had dedicated staff to moderating, That seems like a lot of work for one person, to write the piece and then check all incoming comment? It also seems a bit odd that you moderate on your own piece. It must make it very unlikely that anything really critical will appear. It would certainly explain why John Waters does not allow comment!!

    • barbera O'Shcokenzy says:

      Actually, @Eureka 63, I would like to apologise for having been so ‘loud’ in Hugh Linehan’s blog but I feel strongly about the topic Hugh raises – and Lord knows I have strayed far from it (apology x2). I don’t know how columnists can take such abuse as appears in the comments threads sometimes. No doubt it’s something to do with mob dynamics and the strategy seems to be to gang up on a scapegoat and shout off with his head. But the worst thing (for me, at any rate, with regard to making comments) is yielding to the temptation to go against one’s usually more disciplined nature for the sake of ‘out-commenting’ or ‘out-smarting’ somebody, which is just all about ego – and that is boring and I cannot say that I am not guilty (apology x3). One last thing, however, before relinquishing a potentially nasty alter ego, I would suggest that Eureka soak a little while longer in the bathtub until Eureka discovers something worthy of an Archimedean exclamation! Oh, and the anticipation is killing me, as I await a ‘really critical’ dissertation from Shellshock – I’m sure that will leave us all…well, shell-shocked.

      Words can be powerful weapons (for good or not for good) and can hurt a lot more than sticks and stones. Bullies know this. I suspect the children’s rhyme (sticks & stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me) was a protection given to children by mothers & fathers who knew only too well the power to wound, of the nasty word and therein lay the efficacy of the rhyme and the reason why it is still heard in playgrounds. I suppose, though, the underlying assumption here is that all columnists are noble minded. Would that it were so. But I think, whether we agree with them or not, some acceptable etiquette has to be adhered to when criticising an opinion. After all the scholarly rigour required by the institutions most of these guys (generic) have to pass through is long and arduous before they even get to the stage where they can hold up a column in a quality newspaper and that in itself deserves a little respect – and especially from those who have gone through or are going through the same intellectual gymnastics.

      Way to go! John & Edward – twins under pressure from that section of the popular press that seeks sensationalism in its coverage and ultimately, slaughter of the innocents.

    • Hugh Linehan says:

      OK, now Jedward has raised its head, I reckon we can now declare this thread officially dead. Apologies for not posting more regularly, but as you’ll have gathered from my comment above @62, I’ve been on the road a bit.

      Shellshock – all IT bloggers write, post and moderate their own blogs. Always amuses me how people think we’ve got armies of staff at our disposal in here. Haven’t you been reading the papers?

      But articles and columns from the paper are opened for comment and moderated each day by staff, who do it alongside a bunch of other tasks. The writers and columnists themselves have no input into the decision on what will be opened for comment. I can guarantee you I’ve never had a conversation with John Waters or anyone else about opening their piece for comment. The limited number of articles opened for comment is purely due to the limited resources available to moderate, not due to any desire to censor. We make those decisions on the basis of what might be most interesting to readers.

      In terms of opening comments out further, we have to take into account potentially exposing The Irish Times to defamation cases (they’re far more likely to come our way than in the direction of an individual blogger or small site), along with the resource costs of moderation. Plus the (to my mind) reasonable points made by some commenters above about trolls, etc.

      But, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, I have never had a conversation along the lines of ‘that article’s too controversial/annoying/provocative to open for comment’. Quite the contrary, in fact.

      And now to bed, with ‘The Week in Politics’. Oh, my glamorous life…

    • shellshock says:

      hi Hugh, no, I dont tend to read the Irish papers much, too much consensus between journalists/politicans/establishment. (witness IT support for Lisbon). The Irish media don’t have a good reputation for fearless journalism. All the major scandals/tragedies have been uncovered elsewhere, and of course the craven section 31 censorship does not render much confidence in the Irish media.

      I assumed as a quality paper like the Guardian employs moderators that the IT would do the same. However same old Irish solutions to Irish situations, so we end up with a hodge podge half way situation where the writer corrects his own homework as it were. I would respectfully suggest that until the IT is willing to commit to new technology and new media that it bow out of the game, as this commenting forum IT style is just lame. And that is now down to you, but to your employers who refuse to invest in the new wave media.

      Still, in 5 years when the IT catches up with the rest of the worlds media we will laugh that we had this discussion. Ha ha, Hugh, imagine you had to moderate your own columns, oh my the good old days……..

    • Patrick says:

      @Shellshock. Let me get this straight. You don’t buy Irish papers, and you’re complaining about the standard of a time consuming service the Irish Times is providing to you free of charge? How does that work? (seriously)

    • shellshock says:


      as Im sure you know there is no such thing as a free lunch. If the IT did not make money it would close down. Advertising is the key here. Do you reallly believe the cover price of a newspaper covers the cost of productton, or a magazine for that matter? Of course not.

      And as for complaining, well just take a look at CIF on the guardian for an idea of how these things SHOULD work. By your logic, one should accept ones lot and be grateful that the IT even deigns to to provide a ‘time consuming service’, Bit forelock tugging for my liking., Oh and by the way, paying for newspapers is like current IT technology, so yesterday. (seriously)

    • Patrick says:


      I wrote a thoughtful and genius reply which my computer just ate for some reason (maybe it’ll still turn up in all it’s unfinished glory).

      But apart from some vague notions about advertising, which doesn’t cover the cost of most newspapers’ online presence (correct me if I’m wrong Hugh) you didn’t really answer my question of “how it works”.

      “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” you said. Explain how this business model is going to work and I’d be pretty sure the Times will be all ears.

      Also explain clearly why your freeloading ass is so important financially to the IT and they will out of pure self interest start bending over backwards to moderate your comments.

      I’m not saying that a free slick and comprehensive webservice wouldnt be awesome, just we need more than Utopian self-entitled guff to make it happen.

      If another post echoing much of this turns up apologies!

    • shellshock says:


      you clearly used up all the brain cells in the genius lost reply! You maybe got overexcited by the brilliance of your wit.

      If you want to know how the business model I am talking about works, go find out for yourself, Im not here to educate people too lazy to bother to work out what they are trying to talk about.

      now this freeloading ass is off to work, so go learn some manners, and look up capitalism in the dictionary, that’s your starter for 10 for finding out how businesses works.

      ‘awesome’: an overused, hyperbolic term mainly used by American overwrought teenagers.

      Go look up a thesaurus as well, you can learn to use words in their proper context there.

    • Patrick says:

      I didn’t mean to start a p**sing competition. I was tongue in cheek calling you a freeloader.

      My questions were genuine. Maybe I’m not particularly smart, and maybe media organisations aren’t particularly smart, but I don’t understand why busineses should be so eager to provide services that don’t make money just because there’s a bunch of people who want stuff for free.

      I can understand why philanthropists and hobbyists might do so in the spirit of fostering public debate, but not businesses.

      If you genuinely have the answers to those questions, please ignore my previous rudeness and tell me.

    • Hugh Linehan says:

      Shellshock and Patrick: why can’t we all just get along?

      Around the world, newspapers are seeing print circulation and ad revenues decline.

      With the exception of newspapers serving the financial and banking sectors, they have also failed to generate enough online advertising or subsciption revenues to support the cost of their online operations.

      The current model of universal free access is therefore under threat, unless we can devise some way of making real money from display advertising (which currently seems unlikely). Alternatively, newspapers can restructure and cut back their operations, which we at The Irish Times have done, but which if continued will inevitably lead to a reduction in content. Or they can consider charging for some content (which, believe me, is being considered by all newspapers around the world). Or they can go out of business – which some have already done, with the likelihood that more will follow.

      There’s a presumption on the part of some content users that merely by bringing their valuable eyeballs to a site they’re adding sufficient value for newspapers to leverage into ad revenue. Fact: they’re not.

    • shellshock says:

      hi Hugh

      you really have hit the nail on the head. We are in a time of seismic change in the newspaper industry, and much like the threat of video killing the radio star, so the death of newspapers is, I believe, overhyped. No matter how much free content is online there is nothing like the feel of a crisp newspaper in your hands to peruse at your leisure.

      If they want to survive, then partisan reporting will have to end, and honest investigative journalsim will have to prevail. Seriously, reading newspapers, even my precious guardian, I am aware that there is an agenda being played out, and that much of what passes for comment must be taken with a pinch of salt, or a sick bucket if it comes to certain contributors.

      Murdoch is planning or threatening to charge for online access. However I doubt that this will work. Can you imagine people paying for news of the world, or the sun?

      This debate is similar to the moral panic that record companies like to invoke about the sales of music. But the concept of paying for this stuff is lost on teenagers who have grown up getting things for free off t’internet.

      The Wire critiqes the modern media in its last series. News values and newspaper content is led by corporate demands, not by reader demands. Newspapers have to make themselves relevant again, or they will continue to shed readers.

      Another reason I won’t buy a lot of newspapers is because half of them are full of sport. Now, if I had the option to buy a version for less, minus the stories about men and their balls I might buy one. But why should I pay for half a newspaper?

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