josh rosner

COMMENT CULTURE

In Australian Culture and Society on June 21, 2011 at 3:18 am

When time and inclination allow, I contribute comments to The Drum. Like many online publications, The Drum opens its articles to comment, albeit moderated. Although I don’t read the comments left on my own pieces, I do read the comments left on other published articles. I wish to make a few observations about what I am calling the ‘comment culture’:

1. Godwin’s Law seems to have a great deal of merit. In 1990, Mike Godwin made a humorous observation, which states: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches (100%).”

2. When one is an academic, and that is known to the readers of one’s writing, Godwin’s Law can be slightly altered, exchanging Nazis with the university at which the writer is employed. This new theory might be stated thus: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability that the level of education provided by the author’s university will be brought into question approaches (100%).” In this altered Godwin’s Theory, I would suggest the likelihood lies somewhere within the first 5 published comments to a piece.

3. The anonymity afforded online commentors seems to frequently lead to the proliferation of personal attacks, in lieu of sound and pertinent rebuttal or affirmation of the original piece. For example, on this blog I linked to one of my previous pieces, and it was here that I received the following comment from a highly informed and intelligent reader:

Just read your article.
Your attempt to disguise your homophobia under the guise of some ‘ethical imperative’ (which apparently only applies to homosexuals) is laughable.
You’re a bigoted cunt, your only real desire is to encourage violence and discrimination against homosexuals in the community, presumably because you are too cowardly to take action yourself.
You disgust me, and judging by the comments @ Unleashed, everyone else has seen through your sad attempt to whip up some more anti-gay sentiment.

It’s the ‘bigoted cunt’ remark which really lends the comment writer gravitas.

My point is, I try, through this blog, my published pieces and my use of social media, to be as transparent as I possibly can without it having a detrimental affect on my family. But what kind of society do we live in, and have we become, when people use the cloak of anonymity to launch personal, hate-filled, vitriolic attacks on people whose views are not aligned with their own and who they have never met? Free speech and my own ideals of transparency ensure such people are afforded a right of reply (or the right of public agreement), but the ‘comment culture’ that we’ve become through our prolific use of social media and other online tools has propagated the rise of online hatred manifest in the ‘comment culture’.

On 14 June, Mungo Maccallum wrote a piece for The Drum, which you can read here, and one of the comments left (which I can no longer locate) called in Maccallum to do the world a favour a kill himself. Now, I can understand that those on the opposing side of an argument can get worked up – that same thing happens to me every time Andrew Bolt opens his mouth on any topic – but to call on someone to kill themself? Really? Calling someone a ‘bigoted cunt’? Really?

I’m sure there has been no research around this, but is it possible that an overwhelmingly large percentage of people who regularly comment on online articles never progressed beyond Year 9?

I will approve and publish the ‘bigoted cunt’ comment on my blog – for the reasons previously mentioned re: free speech and transparency – but I do so with the full details of the commenter available for all readers.

I don’t know what the solution is to the problem of vitriolic personal attacks in the form of comments, on the one hand, and everyone’s right to free speech, on the other. I suppose the obvious reality is that free speech has its limits. Not in the Stanley Fish ‘there’s no such thing as free speech’ kind of scenario, but in a some speech is repugnant to  a majority of people kind of way. For example, holocaust denial. But even then, I believe holocaust deniers, as misguided as they may be, should also be afforded the same right to free speech and everyone else.

For now, I’ll err on the side of advocating more, not less, free speech. But I recognise its limitations and I can certainly see the problems that may arise in the future in our ‘comment culture’.

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