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Posts Tagged ‘comment boxes’

I had a vague idea of what/who a troll was on the internet, but Sam Leith gives some definitions:

Two pieces of wisdom today preoccupy me. One, whose originator is unknown, is: “Don’t feed the trolls.” The other—which I’ve heard plausibly attributed to the Guardian columnist Grace Dent—is: “Never read the bottom half of the internet.” The latter—a warning, essentially, against plunging into the foaming cauldron of madness in online comment threads—is a sort of preventative measure. If you don’t read the bottom half of the internet—the bit under the bridge—you stand that much less chance of finding yourself looking down on a hungry troll, with a billy-goat in your arms, and being overcome by temptation.

A troll, in internet terms, is someone who sails into a discussion just to mess things up. He is the poker of sticks into ants’ nests: the commenter who gatecrashes a rape survivor’s messageboard with a collection of Frankie Boyle jokes, or posts fake news stories about stock in forums for investors. The idea is not to contribute to the discussion, but to derail it. Online trolls thrive on rage, hurt and confusion. What they are after is a rise. Hence: don’t feed the trolls. It only encourages them.

Leith goes on to use trolling/trolliness as a key to interpreting contemporary culture.

You can see trolliness in the Twitter feeds of drunken students. But you can also see it in entertainment: the “new nastiness” in stand-up comedy – using offensive material to generate buzz – is troll-work. And you can see it in national newspapers… Provocation has always been a function of journalism, but it’s becoming an ever more central one.

There is a decipherable reason for this. Eyes on a page are eyes on a page. Retweets, whether in outrage or endorsement, are retweets. The currency of the internet is not agreement but attention. So trolling – whose only raison d’être is the gaining of attention – is a central dynamic of modern media. It could, arguably, be seen as the characteristic communicative gesture of the internet era. We live in the age of the troll.

But the currency of all entertainment and journalism has always been, to some extent, not agreement but attention. I don’t think there was some kind of pre-internet purity about ‘communicative gestures’ – editors have always wanted to sell papers; journalists have always wanted their stories to be popular. The only difference now is that Joe-punter can get his oar in to stir things up and grab everyone’s attention, whereas before if was just the professionals who had the tools and the power to enter the fray.

But maybe a fundamental difference between editors seeking attention and sales, and commentators trying to provoke a deluge of re-tweets, is that the editors were at some level accountable. You can’t call a troll to account – they just slip off into cyberspace and create another login name, another avatar. Perhaps trolling has more in common with graffiti that anything else – be it the day-glo tags on the side of a train, or the scrawl on the toilet door. It’s there to be seen and to provoke you – and you’ll never know the face of the person who put it there.

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Why is it that some people, especially in the blogs and comment boxes, become so hostile on the internet? Is it the anonymity? The lack of self-censorship that arises when communication is instantaneous? The inability to un-post a spontaneous comment? The tiredness that comes with writing late into the night? Or is it simply that online communication is, in one sense, unmediated: you meet the real person sitting at their computer; you are plugged into their mind – and this is what our minds are like.

Alan Jacobs has a different answer. He thinks it is because we have an over-developed sense of justice, that is not balanced or tempered by the virtues of humility and charity. It’s too simplistic to say that people are just angry or rude or self-righteous. Maybe they are. But this doesn’t explain what drives their anger or rudeness or self-righteousness.

What energises them is a sense of justice: “I’ve seen something that you haven’t, something that matters, something that could be lost.” But this zeal for justice can drown out every other human virtue, especially the virtues that make it possible to communicate that sense of justice to others, or to question whether one’s judgements about this possible injustice are correct.

now-famous cartoon on the xkcd “webcomics” site shows a stick figure typing away at his computer keyboard as a voice from outside the frame says, “Are you coming to bed?” The figure replies: “I can’t. This is important. . . . Someone is wrong on the Internet.” I have thought a lot about why people get so hostile online, and I have come to believe it is primarily because we live in a society with a hypertrophied sense of justice and an atrophied sense of humility and charity, to put the matter in terms of the classic virtues.

Late modernity’s sense of itself is built upon achievements in justice. This is especially true of Americans. When we look back over the past century, what do we take pride in? Suffrage for women, the defeat of fascism, Brown vs. Board of Education, civil rights and especially voting rights for African-Americans. If you’re on one side of the political spectrum, you might add the demise of the Soviet empire; if you’re on the other side, you might add the expansion of rights for gays and lesbians. (Or you might add both.) The key point is that all of these are achievements in justice…

As we have come to focus our attention ever more on politics and the arts of public justice, we have increasingly defined our private, familial, and communal lives in similar terms. The pursuit of justice has come to define acts and experiences that once were governed largely by other virtues. It is this particular transformation that Wendell Berry was lamenting when he wrote, “Marriage, in what is evidently its most popular version, is now on the one hand an intimate ‘relationship’ involving (ideally) two successful careerists in the same bed, and on the other hand a sort of private political system in which rights and interests must be constantly asserted and defended. Marriage, in other words, has now taken the form of divorce: a prolonged and impassioned negotiation as to how things shall be divided.” That is, it has become a matter of justice rather than of love, an assertion of rights rather than a self-giving.

This same logic governs our responses to one another on the Internet. We clothe ourselves in the manifest justice of our favorite causes, and so clothed we cannot help being righteous (“Someone is wrong on the Internet”). In our online debates, we not only fail to cultivate charity and humility, we come to think of them as vices: forms of weakness that compromise our advocacy. And so we go forth to war with one another.

This comes close to what Thomas Hobbes, writing four centuries ago, famously called the “war of every man against every man.” As he pointed out, such a war may begin in the name of justice, but justice cannot long survive its depredations. In such an environment, “this also is consequent; that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, have there no place. . . . Force and fraud are in war the two cardinal virtues.”

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A few weeks ago Richard Dawkins changed the way the bulletin-board on his website functioned. He was shocked by the reactions left in the comment boxes, which were often abusive, angry, and even hysterical.

“Surely there has to be something wrong with people who can resort to such over-the-top language, overreacting so spectacularly to something so trivial,” he wrote. “Was there ever such conservatism, such reactionary aversion to change, such vicious language in defence of a comfortable status quo? What is the underlying agenda of these people?” There must, he felt, be “something rotten in the internet culture that can vent it”.

Why is the internet a breeding ground for such venom? It’s not just the anonymity afforded to those who respond, or the speed with which the responses can be posted. It’s also the feedback mechanism that allows members of internet groups to reinforce for each other both their best convictions and their worst prejudices.

lights and crowds by gaspi *your guide.

James Harkin describes the process:

 The paradox of the “wisdom of online crowds” is that it only works in clubbable, relatively small groups of like-thinking minds. The reason why the richest and most productive audiences online are for the most arcane subjects – on the relationship between economics and law, for example, or how to care for cats – is because everyone involved feels part of an exclusive club dedicated to finding out more about the same thing.

However, it’s for exactly the same reason that many of these clubs can become breeding grounds for vicious tribalism. The brevity required for communication on Twitter does not lend itself to decorous etiquette, but neither is it the soul of wit to circulate snide, snarky tweets to an enthusiastic group of followers.

Too often the online audience separates into a series of rival gangs, each of them patting each other on the back and throwing stink-bombs at the other side. In this environment civility can disappear, with the result that those who do not take an extreme approach in offering their views decide that online forums are not for them.

When everyone is reinforcing everyone else’s opinion in an online echo-chamber, there’s little need to state a case or debate one’s opponent. It’s easier – like the schoolyard bully – just to abuse them. The other problem with online “communities” is that decisions about quality often become snagged in a highly conservative and self-reinforcing feedback loop in which everyone queues up to follow the leader. 

So it’s hard to keep a website or blog running that will genuinely be a place of dialogue and discussion, rather than just a tribal meeting point.

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