Jim Carroll

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Moving to a post-comments world

It’s a bad time to be a troll. Most of you will have noticed by now that there’s something of a backlash going on at present against anonymous comments, cyber-bullying and general nasty online pondlife. It didn’t quite begin with …

Tue, Oct 2, 2012, 09:21


It’s a bad time to be a troll. Most of you will have noticed by now that there’s something of a backlash going on at present against anonymous comments, cyber-bullying and general nasty online pondlife. It didn’t quite begin with Leo Traynor’s powerful piece about his encounter with a terrible teenage troll last week, but it’s a very good place to start with this. Since then, there’s been a flood of follow-up pieces about similar experiences (Una’s Pop Life post last week was excellent in this regard) and Pat Kenny covered another side of this issue last night on RTE One’s The Frontline, with an interview with Jonathan Pugsley, whose 15 year old daughter Ciara was found dead after being bullied on website Ask.fm.

But these are just parts of a much bigger picture and there are a couple of other elements to throw into the mix. A few weeks ago, Liam Cahill closed down the very popular GAA site An Fear Rua. While Cahill said that financial pressures played a part, there was also an issue over users acting the maggot and leaving the site’s administrator to take the flak. “I’ve been fortunate enough not to be sued over the 12 years, although there were a couple of incidents where libels published elsewhere were copied and pasted onto the forum”, he told Sean Moran in an interview in this newspaper. “But to keep going I’d have needed the membership collectively to accept that they had a responsibility in this but that has proved impossible.”

He added in a statement: “an anonymous internet forum is an anachronism. It has been overtaken by the arrival of ‘open identity’ forums such as Twitter and Facebook. This model of internet comment is no longer viable, if the comment is to be within the law at all times as well as the bounds of good taste.” Of course, as we’ve seen with cases like Tom Daley vs Rileyy69, Twitter and Facebook are no block against nasty comments. It also needs to be acknowledged that some superstar Twitter users, as we’ve seen with Graham Linehan in the recent past, like to use the pitchforks to attack and abuse those who have irked and annoyed them.

People should also remember that all of this is not some new development. In a recent issue of Wired, one-time Merry Prankster Stewart Brand talked to Kevin Kelly about the legacy of the WELL, the bulletin board prototype which was launched in 1985. Kelly notes that “the dark side” of online forums was present and correct back then, with “the flame wars, the trolls, the stuff that polite people will write that they wouldn’t say in person”.

Brand says he eventually left the WELL because of being flamed: “it was due to the now-usual dynamic that Facebook is encountering. Administrators are surprised to discover that the users who occupy the community believe it is their community and the administrators work for them! Because of the nature of the system, the dissent is intensely personal and flows right into your inbox…online behavior can be like chicken-pecking: If anyone shows blood, that bird is down.”

He believes one of the problems back then had to do with anonymity. “We didn’t go far enough in holding people to their real identity. I was pretty sure that anonymity was toxic, and so at first I didn’t want anonymity on the WELL. This became a source of controversy: Others liked online anonymity, because it allowed people to tell the truth.”

Over a quarter-of-a-century later, these concerns are still very much part of the mix. When users can be anonymous (or even hide behind a social media avatar), the temptation to behave in an anti-social manner is too much for some to resist. Please note I said “some”. But you only have to read the comments after any Broadsheet post or Guardian Comment Is Free piece to realise that “some” is a significant number. Here, you’ll see that a significant minority quickly morph into the kind of people you’d cross the street to avoid in real life. Psychologists would have a field day with such Walter Mitty antics, as office dudes become keyboard warriors once they log on to their favourite online hangout as SmurfKnight69.

Yet this is far more serious than a game of Dungeons and Dragons. As we’ve seen with the various cases of teenage cyber-bullying, it’s not enough to tell someone to shrug it off. This advice might be OK to impart to an older person who is experienced enough to ignore the barbs and move on, but it’s a different matter when you’re a vulnerable kid looking to emulate and impress your peers. There are also, it must be remembered, older users who might be just as vulnerable when it comes to dealing with being the butt of such odious behaviour.

The bigger question, though, is if we’ll still be talking about this issue 25 years from now. Will a comments war after an online article (I was going to say “newspaper article” but I don’t really think daily newspapers will be in print a decade from now) still be considered a thing to follow and comment further on? Will people still want to add their opinion to blogs, websites and whatever other online forums will exist then? Will media organisations still seek to comment-enable every single piece they publish to gain page views and readers’ opinions? Or will we finally just run out of a desire to express our opinions and views and look back at social media as another fad?

It’s impossible to predict which, if any, of these will come to pass, but it’s worth noting that inertia is not an option. When it comes to technology, and especially how we react to and interact with that technology, we live in a constant state of flux. From people tapping into the then unheralded and even overlooked text messaging features on their mobile phones in the 1990s to the current mania for social media, humans embrace the opportunity to use – and abuse – changes in how we can communicate with great gusto. There’s a natural tendency to want to add your own voice to a debate, something which has contributed to how many online communities have grown so rapidly in recent times (and yes, that includes this blog).

Yet you have to muse if we’ll see a movement in another direction. Will that desire to add your opinion to an online debate or discussion eventually dissipate, once people realise that they’re contributing to a vortex or a chamber of voices rather than actually getting stuff done (well, if you were be facetious, aside from bringing back defunct chocolate bars)? Will the negative scuttlebutt eventually win out and drive people away, as was the case with Brand and the WELL? Will social media retweets and likes still be valuable currency in the attention economy of the future? Can we really leave the trolls behind as we move to a brave new world? And what exactly comes after comments? Because as sure as eggs are eggs, a change is going to come.