Journalists warn each other often never to enter the internet’s bottom half. “Don’t read the comments”, they say, and if one wants to live to write another day, this is probably good advice. Say, for example, one writes a piece on the qualities of proper sponge cake, and the comments may offer “why are you body-shaming sponge cake?” or “typical left-wing refusal to acknowledge the tea cake” or simply “you are a sponge-cake loving arsehole who should die”, and you may be disinclined again to write for fear of either (a) dying or, worse, (b) being misunderstood. Ergo, don’t read the comments.
But I have never been able to follow this guidance. And this is not just that I am a sucker for punishment, but because I am greedy for good ideas. There are good ideas in the comments. There is often valuable instruction. Once in Crikey, someone offered a surprisingly simple explanation of the relationship of GDP to debt with the use of a primary school-level fraction analogy. Often at Daily Review, readers will offer cultural references of which I hadn’t known or thought. This enlivens conversation for readers and challenges writers to out-read their highly literate audience. The good in the “bottom half” is something I choose to elevate.
But this has been a peculiar few days at work. First, a piece I wrote on Crikey and Daily Review “went viral”, as they say. Second, this prompted a lot of personal abuse on the internet generally — this happens regularly, but not so forcefully as it has in the last week.
Third, this has prompted in me some very unhealthy reactions — which is to say, in one case, I myself reacted like an idiot — and I just wanted here to share some notes on the experience in the hope this may clarify for some of you the Sisyphean chore of trying to either make a point or stay sane on the internet.
If you’ve ever been trapped in the hell of a Facebook thread and found that actually it turns you into just the fuckwit against whom you’re reacting, perhaps this account will be helpful. We start with the best intentions. These can very often quickly devolve into the worst.
I was very careful in this particular published piece, as I am in all professionally published pieces, not to personally disparage people. This is not because I am lovely. It is because (a) I don’t like being sued, and (b) I know that criticising a person and not an idea is not a useful argument. And, you know, it’s also just mean.
This piece was misread as personal attack. Many correspondents and commentators attacked me personally and very publicly on the basis that I had made a personal attack. Which I had not. I am not asking for sympathy here, as I am also, as you will soon see, prone to this kind of behaviour. Of course, I don’t say “Kill yourself!” or “You are mental!” or “You are a has-been who doesn’t deserve to work!” as others have to me. Still. I am vulnerable, as many people are vulnerable, to produce an aching degree of self-involved internet stupid.
The way we now talk to each other about Serious Issues can be very peculiar. We diminish their intellectual complexity by transforming them into some very bleak and simple cognition.
My work and the reactions to it are a bit different than Facebook or everyday social media experience in that I will spend several days writing and researching a single piece, because such is my profession. I have the great luxury of time to think. But still, it’s not even as if there are parallels between the social media experience and the journalist’s. Often, as one’s work is discussed on Facebook, it’s a matter of absolute convergence.
Which is to say, these observations may be of direct use to you, whatever your profession.
Our emerging conversation often proceeds: someone makes a point about a big issue. Someone calls them a fuckwit for holding that view. Someone reasonable may enter the “debate” at this point and ask for all players to consider the complexity of the big point at hand, and the two people having the argument call the reasonable person a fuckwit, transforming them also into a hurt fuckwit. No one is talking any longer about the big point. Meantime, everyone is busy on Wikipedia picking cherries at speed with the partial intention of making a point, but the ultimate intention of diminishing others. And very often, no one actually has any reliable clue about the point at hand. But everyone feels that the right to freedom of expression is the same thing as an obligation to expression. It’s not just “I’m entitled to my opinion” anymore. We actually feel we’re required to hold one. Even if we know dick-all about the matter at hand.
We can see this play out very well in new TV show, The Verdict. Which I criticised in exactly these terms.
But. It was just this week that I answered a comment in very personal terms. I have just spent a day writing to the chap to apologise because my ugliness, derived from conversational stupidity, has been troubling me ever since I pressed “submit”. And in this case, he had not even attacked me personally but simply countered a point not even made by me, but by another commenter entirely, whom I felt he had disparaged. Which he hadn’t. And yes, I know that “he said, she said, ooh look over there at that shiny thing” is hard to follow, but that’s the perverse shape of internet conversation, isn’t it? We amass misunderstanding to the point of mutually assured intellectual destruction. Afterwards, we stockpile justification for the fact we have been an arsehole.
And, I was an arsehole.
My reaction, which I describe fairly confident that you have experienced a similar exchange, was produced in the crucible of personal attack. Muggins here, who should have known better, felt so upset that her objective work had been widely read as personal attack, that she personally attacked an objective presentation. Which does not excuse the fact that I made a nasty, hasty comment to one who had nothing particularly offensive to say to me. But does, to some degree, explain it.
There are some popular, scholarly works on the topic of instant reactions and the Big Emotions and small thinking these produce. John Freeman, former editor of Granta, has written in The Tyranny of Email a historical and referenced account of how we now read much more quickly, comprehend much less fully — according to several laboratory studies, we now read less than 50% of full texts to which we will respond — and answer much more forcefully. The nonstop context of electronic communications also appears to us as an ongoing conversation. Which is to say, all the discrete communications we read become part of a mass — it all happened on the internet, after all. And so we react to what we perceive to be the entire conversation — made up of many comments and correspondents about which no other account holder but us could know. To say we are talking to each other at cross purpose is tragic understatement. We are all, very often, talking to our own hurt feelings.