Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

My 10 cents on newspaper comments sections

There will be a temporary suspension on comments in this place. We make a few observations.

Fri, Apr 22, 2016, 21:31

   

About 12 or 13 years ago I wrote a column in the Irish Times magazine concerning the contemporaneous fad for including viewers’ and readers’ comments in mainstream media. Cast your mind back. There was a time when TV viewers who wanted to whinge about stuff on Antiques Roadshow were encouraged to “press the red button”. Email addresses were being read out in the same pleading voice as actual addresses. “We’d like to hear what you think,” we were constantly being told. You won’t be surprised to hear that the substance of my argument was that I didn’t want to hear what the viewers or readers thought. I tuned in to hear what Simon Schama or Will Self thought. If I wished to hear from the average person in the street then I would go out and ask him or her. An example: I stopped listening to Mark Kermode’s film reviews with Simon Mayo when they became overtaken by the views of Brian from Swindon or Celia from Port Talbot. They may be very clever folk, but they are not who I’ve come to listen to.

What did the commentators at the bottom of the column say? This view was sure to generate fury. Right? They said nothing. Though we had, at that stage, a few places for readers to offer their 10 cents (or was it still 8.5 pence?), the comments gutters did not become common for another five years and were not ubiquitous until as late as 2012. (Indeed, I don’t think the piece was even published online, if you can believe that.) I did, however, receive a mad letter in spidery lilac ink that, complaining furiously about my fascist tendencies, inadvertently proved the very point I was trying to make.

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It now seems hilarious that I bothered to comment about “user contributions” way back then. It is akin to complaining about digital downloads in 1956. Over the last decade, such sections have become a source of enormous controversy. With a few notable exceptions, writers can’t stand them. A disproportionate number of commentators fail to read through to the end before digging in their oar (glance a my recent light-hearted piece on “banning rugby” for many examples). The commentators have an extraordinary habit of expanding your argument in mad directions and then blaming you for their own speculative unreason. Were I to reply to comments in the main bit of the website — and I almost never do — then most such replies would say: “I didn’t say that. I didn’t imply that. I don’t believe that.” The sane voices are too often shouted down by louder, less balanced bearers of blazing pitchforks.

Only a modest amount of this was personally offensive to me. As Una Mullally argued in this place last week, women and minorities get much heavier levels of abuse in the gutter and much of that abuse is pointedly bigoted. A recent story in The Guardian came to the depressing conclusion that, of its 10 most abused writers, eight were women and the other two were black. Sometimes the blameless subject of the article proves to be the target. Just look at this interview with Greta Gerwig from that paper last year. What is the point of publishing comments like these at the bottom of this piece? “Hipster, boring, no screen presence,” or “Just quietly depart from my Newspaper” or (my personal favourite) ”Dowdy, vain and entitled- probably useless in bed.” This is in The Guardian! Because it was decided early on that all comments that satisfied supposed “standards” would be published, it soon became typical for those who had comments deleted to argue they had been censored. When a sub-editor cuts something I have written because it’s rubbish (a far from uncommon experience) it is regarded as editing. When a commentator has his or her screed removed it is “censorship”. Never mind your official rules of engagement. Those comments on the Gerwig piece should have been axed for the simple reason that they are not worth reading. It’s a matter of standards as much as decency — though, as it happens, the irrational misogyny is palpable throughout.

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In the world of cinema, the main point of comment-gutter conflict has been the comic-book film. How did this happen, I wonder. Comic-book fans were not always so unreasonable. Indeed, they are, on average, not so unreasonable now. But negative reviews of comics adaptations generate positively lunatic levels of apoplexy among certain sections of that “community” (oh god, that word!). Here again, the abuse is much fiercer against women. The filth levelled at certain female critics following the release of The Dark Knight Rises eventually forced Rotten Tomatoes to suspend their comments section. The cretins then tracked reviewers down to their own manors. ”She’s just pissed because she lives in the Village full of gay men and no one wants any of her old, dried out pie,” one commentator said of Stephanie Zacharek from the Village Voice when she dared to be indifferent about Guardians of the Galaxy. (Ms Z, now at Time magazine, is a Pulitzer Prize finalist, by the way.)

How did we get here? Somebody once compared the practice to an office manager placing a blackboard outside his building and allowing more or less anybody to write more or less any rude comment about the employees. Well, nobody much saw this coming. When the comments sections were devised in papers such as the Guardian, the New York Times, the Village Voice or The Irish Times, it was reasonably assumed that the conversation beneath the article would be carried out in much the reasoned tone we come to expect from readers of those newspapers. “Probably useless in bed” was not the sort of thing Guardian editors expected to read beneath an article on a very nice, very intelligent actress (not that it would have been any more acceptable if she were very rude and very stupid).

Some changes have been made. If you have made an effort to comment on an Irish Times article this week you will see that you must now be subscriber. This may change the tone of the debate. At any rate, for reasons that needn’t concern you, this means that comments have been unavoidably suspended on this “blog” for a few weeks. You may suspect that I am delighted about this. Actually, no. I have found that people have generally been pretty polite when coming to the Screenwriter “blog”. There is, I think, more of a sense that they are communicating directly with the writer.

Anyway, until the situation is resolved, please continue to communicate with me on Twitter (@donaldclarke63). Screenwriter articles will also be posted on The Ticket’s Facebook page shortly (https://www.facebook.com/irishtimestheticket/). Just do us one favour. Read the article before suggesting that it proves I’m bad in bed.