One of my pieces that Pajiba published this week was originally intended for this blog; you can read it here if you haven’t seen it yet. It was my response to the events at Westminster on Wednesday, and in it I pay tribute to what I see as the quintessentially British ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ mentality. It was, I thought, chock full of my usual Hufflepuff good vibes. I do try.
I got drawn into a bit of a battle in the comments, unfortunately. I had some really lovely responses from readers, with most taking the piece in the spirit in which it was written. But there were a fair few commenters who gave me a bit of grief for it. It was a shock, to be honest; I have been very fortunate in my feedback so far, and perhaps I was in a naive little bubble, but some of the responses threw me a little.
Don’t get me wrong- I love the commenting community at my other writing home. They are funny, warm, entertaining, snarky, insightful and occasionally grumpy (but in that fun kind of way). They are loyal readers, and I love engaging with them in the comments. But there were a few that pushed my buttons this week. And it got me thinking about the nature of online commenting in general.
Dave Gorman uses the phrase “the bottom half of the internet” when he talks about online commenters, and he is usually (I assume) looking at far less salubrious sites when he makes his brilliant found poems.
But there are trends developing amid the free, open and often anonymous commenting that takes place ‘below the line’ and on social media. The internet is great for establishing conversations- but it appears that the social codes of normal interactions don’t apply. The internet is still largely a Wild West environment, a brutal unchartered landscape where one must be tough to survive. It’s such a different world that we have had to invent an abbreviation for ‘in real life’ to distinguish between our online and IRL personas.
Let’s start with the ‘well actually’ trend. I give kudos to the fact-checkers and the book pedants, of course. But is the unnecessary urge to explain just patronising? The ‘well actually’ comments on my piece, unfortunately, were evidence of a few commenters misreading some very gentle humour about the history of the UK and the English language. And that’s the issue with ‘well actually’; it is meant to show superior knowledge, but it can instead make the wannabe pedant look like a bit of a plonker… IRL equivalents of this include ‘mansplaining’ and Kanye West’s ‘Imma let you finish…’ incident, which are widely mocked. So why are they fine online?
Up next: the aggressive topic shift, also known as hijacking. We don’t like it when this happens in an IRL conversation, though it can often be the entirely harmless product of exuberance and enthusiasm. It should really happen less online, where comments are attached to specific articles, and communication exchanges are a bit slower. You can take your time to think up a point, review it before you post, and take back your words via editing, which you can’t do in a spoken conversation. My happy post on being stoic was hijacked in a couple of ways- mostly focusing on how much some of the commenters hated the English. And the British Empire.
That brings me to trend three: a failure to recognise context. The internet is a strange place because it isn’t really a place at all. However, don’t let that trick you into forgetting the fact that “there is a time and a place” for every idea. You wouldn’t go to a funeral and talk loudly and repeatedly about how much you hate the person in the coffin. One of my commenters could perhaps have waited until the bodies were cold before showing me how much he hates the victims’ (and my) nationality.
Fortunately, I have yet to face the final trend, the personal attack, though this is by far the nastiest, and probably the one that is the most widespread. This is also the one that puzzles me the most. I can understand the first three; I can see where ‘rules’ might slip away in the heat of the moment. But firing off personal insults ‘below the line’ clearly crosses the line. Would you ever say that to someone’s face? If you would, should you? As a grown up? A presumably civilised grown up with friends and colleagues? It’s perfectly fine to disagree with someone. It’s also fine to do that emphatically and vehemently. But if that’s the case, make your point – don’t make it personal. Don’t threaten or intimidate. It’s not funny. It’s not banter. And it’s never OK.
So this is my little guide to gauging whether to ‘go in’ or not. Type your comment and then answer these questions before you hit ‘post’:
Is this relevant?
Is it helpful?
Does it enrich the discussion?
Would I say this to someone’s face?
Is now the right time to say this?
Am I sure that what I am responding to says what I think it says?
Am I OK with looking like a plonker if I’ve got the wrong end of the stick?
Would it be OK if everyone I knew saw this?
Can I defend it if I am called out on it by someone who might tell me off? (This one is particularly relevant with social media, where a tweet or a comment can land you in serious trouble with your boss. Or perhaps your parents!)
If you answer ‘no’ to any of these questions, well maybe you should seriously consider deleting what you have just typed…
My title this week is certainly sound advice for those venturing into that wild space below the line. I would be wise to follow it myself…
Perhaps Thumper had the right answer all along. (Pre-emptive ‘well actually’: it was Thumper’s father that allegedly provided this pearl of wisdom. But I can’t post a video of him.)