In the online edition of Melbourne-based publication King’s Tribune last month, editors Jane Gilmore and Justin Shaw came to a radical decision. They resolved – after a few months of earnest consideration was capped by one post of anonymous, misogynist bilge too many – to turn comments on their website ”off”.
Given the magazine deals mostly in robustly expressed opinion, and not wishing to discourage debate, Gilmore and Shaw made an even more radical suggestion: letters could be sent by email or Facebook, or even (are you sitting down?) by post. The most cogent, topical and witty of them would be considered for publication.
It’s important to note the Tribune is a small venture. It began five years ago as a newsletter for a St Kilda bar and became a ”real” magazine last October, extending its reach through newsagents into Sydney and Canberra. Its circulation is less than 1000; Gilmore and Shaw keep day jobs.
There are practical reasons for a small publication like the Tribune to disable comments: neither the editors nor individual writers have the time, energy or inclination to monitor and moderate, much less reply to them all. There are more pressing things, such as getting out the next issue.
The Tribune is not alone. Many bloggers are heading down the same path, which seems counter-intuitive, given immediacy and interactivity were two of the key attractions of blogging in the first place. But how many people are actually bothering to read the so-called bottom half of the internet, let alone add to it?
My guess is that it’s a tiny minority, but it’s a minority that’s having a disproportionate influence on both the tone and direction of the print and electronic media.
The key question for older mastheads in particular is how much immediate, non-considered, anonymous commentary enhances public debate – after they’ve spent valuable resources weeding out the spammers, trollers, and astro-turfers that deliberately seek to distort and/or poison it.
There’s some evidence the astro-turfers, in particular, are on the march. British writer George Monbiot recently told of being contacted by a whistleblower that worked as part of a PR team paid to infiltrate comment threads and forums, doing the bidding of their corporate clients. The whistleblower worked under 70 different usernames.
The implications for debates on contentious topics such as climate change – which is not actually scientifically contentious, unless you have an enormous vested interest in convincing the public otherwise, or at least sowing the seeds of confusion and doubt – are obvious. And alarming.
Then there’s the issue of anonymity. This might be vital if you’re a Chinese or Syrian dissident or, for that matter, a spambot turned corporate whistleblower. Mostly, though, it just allows people to indulge their worst tendencies, not only towards individuals but entire social groups.
In this respect, a culture of widespread online bullying – particularly towards female writers – actually has the potential to drive some of our brightest voices out of public life altogether. Writers have always needed thick hides, but for some the price of your anonymity can be measured in their therapy bills.
It’s true that people haven’t changed in their tendency to be biased, ill-informed, unreasonable or at times plain inarticulate, and that we shouldn’t blame the technology (which can also be such a transformative agent for good) for the shortcomings of those who abuse it.
After all, people can also be wise, considered, challenging and eminently reasonable, and they too can reach a wider audience than ever before. In practice, though, this rarely happens. Mostly, comment forums remind me of children’s playgrounds, where the bullies always win – because everyone else scarpers.
The sad truth is that controversy outrates reason every time. We live in an immoderate age. It’s why Ray Hadley, Kyle Sandilands, Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt are among the best-paid and most powerful media personalities in the country.
Does the popularity of The Drum, The Punch and even, for that matter, Q&A depend first and foremost on the talent of their writers and guests? Or do they live or die on the extent of the frenzy they generate? This is a difficult dilemma for mainstream media publications, which (unlike The King’s Tribune) base part of their online business models on advertising pageviews.
The genie is long out of the bottle, to the point that it’s both impossible and undesirable to stuff it back in. But, were the genie able to grant three wishes, I’d request genuine transparency of identity (why can’t names and addresses be withheld, where clearly necessary, on request?), a much tougher line on personal abuse and a greater weighting towards comments that actually expand discussion.
All of which takes time, money and human resources. But with the nation’s political and personal manners increasingly coarse, it might help elevate the tone of how we speak to each other, and provide at least some protection from an army of baiters, haters and spivs.
First published in The Age, 12 April 2012