Online comments – who are they good for?

On Sunday, I went to a Guardian Masterclass* for aspiring freelance journalists. It was a fantastic day run by industry professionals who were unbelievably positive and keen to share their knowledge. There was none of that “well, print journalism’s a sick, dying horse these days, so if I were you lot, I’d stick to basket-weaving or whatever it is mere peasants do to make a living”. I can’t fault the event at all, but there was one little thing that bugged me: a Q & A session with Guardian journalist Marina Hyde was derailed by at least four questions on the issue of online comments, and how writers deal with them. One question on it would have been fine, but four? I just don’t think they’re important enough to warrant half an hour of discussion. (A whole blog post’s worth of discussion, yes, but no-one’s paying for this. Yet.)

  *well, I say that. In order to be in London for 9.30am, I got to the station at half-7. Whereupon I was told “there’s a broken-down train at Gatwick, so nothing’s going further than there”. Four hours, four trains, a brief car journey and seemingly all the stations in Sussex later, I got to Victoria. By some brilliant stroke of luck, I made it to the Royal College of Medicine – where the event was being held – at the first coffee break, so I didn’t have to sneak into an auditorium and make a spectacle of myself.
Anyway, Marina Hyde’s perspective on below-the-line comments was fairly straightforward, and ran something along the lines of: “I don’t care, and I don’t have time to read them anyway… I think they should be there, because if I’m pissing on people’s opinions above the line, then they should be able to piss on mine in the comments” (I’m paraphrasing, but she definitely said “pissing”. You can ask her). She mentioned that some columnists don’t think readers should be able to comment at all, and as an aspiring writer, I can absolutely see why.
In theory, the comments section is a safe space for debating the issue being written about above the line, which is well and good and dandy. In practice, however, it seems to be flypaper for headcases. And I don’t mean the genuinely mentally ill, I mean the people whose opinions are a bit… Daily Mail on steroids. “This country’s gone to the dogs” and “back in my day” and the like. People write because they want to connect with readers, plant ideas, raise a smile, provoke discussion, and so to be a writer who is against online comments can be a bit of a contradiction. The trouble is, in the Venn diagram of “people who have the time and inclination to write comments on newspaper articles” and “people whose opinions are well-informed and logically sound”, there isn’t an awful lot of overlap.
There is a tiny voice in my head – and it’s one I’m working on drowning out – that keeps saying, “Is it absolutely necessary that we can publish our every opinion for all to see?” Yes, I’m aware of how that sounds – it’s a bit anti-free speechy, and a bit rich coming from a blogger. But if you look at Twitter, and the amount of abuse aimed at high-profile writers, then you might see what I’m getting at. It’s a related issue – from the safety of a keyboard, people feel they can say anything, and the notion of having to answer for your actions is forgotten. How else do you explain the bomb threats, rape threats and disgusting language directed at Grace Dent, Hadley Freeman, Mary Beard, India Knight, to name just a few? From a distance, it’s easy to say, “well, the people saying this stuff are clearly arseholes, and too childish to bother getting stressed about”, but if you’re facing it day in, day out, while simply trying to do your job, I should imagine it gets pretty fucking old.
I suppose there are measures in place – comments are moderated, offensive language doesn’t usually get through. But that’s only a small part of the problem; it would be lovely if before you could publish a comment on an online article, you had to answer the question: “will your comment improve anything for anyone today?” 
Unfortunately, there will always be ill-informed idiots, and the internet’s just another platform for them. I’m still not sure online comments are a complete necessity, but maybe I’m missing something. I’d say I just won’t read them, but everyone likes to feel morally superior once in a while, so I doubt I’ll be giving up my Mail Online habit any time soon. Which is sad, really.

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