If you’re reading this online – stop

This column is not for the vitriolic online mob

Responses to columns are almost invariably toxic

For the avoidance of doubt, I'd like to stress that I don't write for The Irish Times' online edition. My column is reproduced there, it's true, and you may well be reading it in that form, but I do not, when I write it, address the audience which might read it there. I write for those who buy and read the print edition – the "newspaper" – for which I've been writing since 1990. Should it ever come to pass that The Irish Times ceases to exist on paper, I'll find another way of earning a living.

My attitude has more than somewhat to do with the sewer of toxic hatred that runs underneath this column every Friday online. Nevertheless, my objection is not purely aesthetic. It’s also grounded in a belief that there’s a profound difference between writing for a screen and writing for a page.

Writers rarely appear to envisage precisely whom they write for. Some claim to address just one person, although with a certain vagueness as to who that may be. Others think of themselves as addressing large audiences, though this seems implausible, for how can any statement be formulated with a host of unknown others in mind?

I have a theory that most writers don’t write for people at all, but for something inanimate, lethargic and apolitical: the page. The relationship between author and page is open, intimate and non-judgmental. When you write for a page, there are two stages. Firstly, you write what you believe to be true. Then, after a pause, you decide what to publish. This reviewing process may include consideration of everything from libel risk to personal qualms which surface on mature reflection.


Kennelly's advice
The best writing advice I ever got came from Brendan Kennelly: write as if you were dead. The only writing that's worthwhile is something unsafe, which often means that the second phase of the process involves a recklessness in green-lighting things with the potential to become embarrassing or awkward for their author.

For the reader, there’s a concomitant process. Most readers of books, and anything but the most perfunctory of news reports, do not read purely for information, but to reach the places they can be brought to with words.

To write for a screen, in the sense of writing for online consumption, is entirely different. Whereas you can whisper or scream on to a page, you can only yell towards a screen. Because everything written specifically for online consumption is written in the expectation of addressing a hostile community, the writing process demands, as a prerequisite, either a defensive or antagonistic demeanour.

Because the responses are almost invariably toxic and hate-filled, there is here but a single-stage process: a declaring into cyberspace. If you write as if you were dead, and read the responses, you may pretty soon find yourself wishing you were.

Were I to think, in writing this column, of writing for the online edition, it would be a different column entirely: either excessively timid and self-protective, or exaggeratedly strident – seeking to appease the lurking mob or to kill rather than be killed.

Those who comment online on other people's writing rarely stake or commit anything – they sit and snarl, deriding and dismissing, but risking nothing themselves. Cowardice is the dominant note, with many posters seeking to protect themselves by hiding behind pseudonyms and lashing out.

I no longer read the comments on my own columns, but hear all about them from third parties and occasionally dip into the comments on other pieces. One recent comment, addressed to the journalist, went: "X (name of columnist), I could insult you but you probably wouldn't understand me". This – in The Irish Times?!! Why?

Several recent research studies have revealed that the way newspaper articles are read online is overwhelmingly dictated by the nature of the initial comments. Posters apparently read – in approximately this order – the byline, the headline, the first comments and then, sometimes, the article they’re supposedly commenting upon.

Recently, listening to a representative of the Samaritans speaking about the work of his organisation, I was reminded that, many years ago, I had occasion to ring the Samaritans. It immediately struck me that, whereas I’d like to write about this sometime, I’m unlikely to do so while this column remains open to comments of the kind that have become standard.

Last week, I had a prostate check-up, related to the Blue September campaign, but, similarly, I refuse to discuss such a personal matter in front of the kind of people who contribute the posts that appear at the end of this column every Friday.

When there’s a pack of rabid rottweilers straining at their leashes waiting to be let loose at you every week, you quickly learn new ways of addressing the culture coming into being. What it all adds up to, therefore, is a form of censorship, which I nowadays, regretfully, agree to enforce upon myself.