I have a rule which I try to observe while browsing news sites online: to try and keep my sanity intact. I rarely succeed, it must be said. The temptation to peek is just too strong. I know I will be annoyed, upset and occasionally disturbed by some of the ugly and stupid things written by ill-informed, ignorant, bigoted souls with an over-inflated sense of their own worth and importance. I know I am sometimes suckered by provocative trolling, attention-seeking idiocy or corrupt promotion of vested interests, but next time it will be different. But one day, I will manage to obey my own golden rule: never read the top half of the internet.
Yes, you read that correctly. I know the received wisdom among journalists and opinion-pedlars is the opposite: never read the bottom half of the internet. If I may put it politely, sod that. I’m old enough to remember the internet before the world wide web, when it was used as nature intended: to share incontrovertible proof of alien invasions. The first internet pornography I ever saw was in Ascii. In the days of newsgroups and lists, the bottom half was the internet, and it remains the raw, beating heart of the beast.
I still treasure the optimism of those years – a future of limitless knowledge, the democratisation of debate, the end of political censorship. A quarter of a century later, the miracle of the digital revolution has created the means to connect the world, allowing us to reach out and talk directly to people across the planet, from a suburban Melbourne housewife to a street kid from Sao Paulo or a professor from Sacramento. We can listen to their views, learn from their experiences and then call them a dick. Technology is a wonderful thing.
There is no denying that people are rude to one another online, and especially rude to journalists. It seems many of my fellow hacks have had enough. Charlie Brooker has said recently that opening comments online was the worst thing to have happened to newspapers. Robert Fisk wrote that those who abuse journalists online are exactly like Adolf Hitler and Anders Breivik. No really, he did.
Meanwhile the tabloids’ war on trolls has reached the point where a Twitter user was branded thus for responding to news that Fearne Cotton had named her son Rex Rayne with the question “Who the fuck suggested that name? Scooby Doo?” If that type of wit is now classed as trolling, then we’re gonna need a bigger bridge.
But do not despair, dear commenters, because the fightback has begun. At the recent social media conference The Story, Rob Manuel, co-founder of B3ta.com, offered a passionate defence of online comments. His talk inspired Hannah Waldram, a Guardian community staffer, to mount a brilliant volley of praise for commenting on her blog, and to establish a new Tumblr, entitled The Bottom Half of the Internet, devoted to the very best, most informative, constructive and helpful contributions, submitted to the Guardian and elsewhere. In the first few days, the site has already illustrated how frequently comments add specialist knowledge, perspective and insight to the original articles.
I’ve learned a hell of a lot from reading the internet, and I’d guess that I’ve learned at least as much from the comments and amateur blogs as from professional writers. To take just one example, it was the commenters here on Comment is free who were railing against the injustices of work capability assessments introduced by this government and conducted by Atos, long before mainstream political journalists, even the most left-leaning Guardian columnists, picked up on the story. As a journalist, I am forever picking up nuggets of information on topics of interest from below the line. Of course, many turn out to be somehow (or entirely) inaccurate or misunderstood, but a significant minority are immensely useful. I find it genuinely unfathomable that other writers would cut themselves off from this goldmine of knowledge.
As I hope you’ve realised, I was joking about never reading the top half of the internet. Across the spectrum of news media, there is near endless provision of fantastic writing, intelligent analysis, informed wisdom and brilliant wit. There is also near endless provision of dross that can be easily ignored, and ugly and offensive opinions that probably should be. Sound familiar?
So if you’ve read this article all the way down here, I thank you. If you’ve skipped my ramblings and jumped straight down to the comments for a barney, I applaud you and thank you for that, too, even though you’ll never know. Because, whatever other topside writers may tell you, whatever abuse we get, whatever furious disagreement, whatever cruel jokes come at our expense, there is only message beneath our articles that we honestly, truly dread. It’s the one that says: Comments .