THE BLOG

A Comment on Comments

05/12/2013 15:07 GMT | Updated 02/02/2014 10:59 GMT

Whenever I hit publish on a blog post, I imagine myself attaching it to a catapult and propelling it into the sea where it will sink to the darkest depths of obscurity alongside all of the other blog posts that only get traffic from erroneous search terms in Google. Down here, oblivious prose and paragraphs scuttle around the ocean bed seeking the social solace of a like or a retweet. Despite the fact that they are mostly ignored, the blog posts quiver with purpose, bubbling opinions that rise in a synchronised ascent of insignificance until they reach the surface and fade out like a noiseless qweef.

In a world where the news cycle is impossibly short and only early-adopters are spared the apathetic eye-roll of the information-addicted reader, there's a real risk that my blog post is just adding to the white noise. I mean, how many more Top 10 lists does the internet really need? Even the subject I'm writing about this very second has been done to death. What if I've missed the Good Ship Topical? And even if I haven't, even if my blog post is impeccably well-timed and I manage to rise above the sheer volume of words on screen, I then risk something far worse than apathy, far greater than insignificance... I risk comments.

In the olden days of print media (*turns eyes mournfully skywards*), readers had few options when it came to complaining about an article. They could send a letter to the editor with absolutely no guarantee of it being seen, moan to their friends or stop reading the offending publication altogether. That was it. They could call the writer a brainless twat all they wanted but chances are, the writer would never know about it. These days, the comments below an article (not to mention on Twitter) are like a verbal mosh pit - except everyone has knives in their hands. And there's not a writer today who hasn't been caught by the pointy end.

Googling "don't read the comments" pulls up 4,320,000,000 results and a twitter campaign, illustrating the enormity of the issue. In fact, Google's recent and unpopular profile integration with YouTube was, according to them, an effort to clean up the abuse on the notoriously venomous video sharing website (although to everyone else it was a thinly veiled attempt to get everyone on Google+). Similarly, the Huffington Post has stopped accepting anonymous accounts in a bid to do something about what they call "online toxicity."

And it doesn't stop there. In September, Popular Science decided to shut off their comment system all together, sighting "vexing commenters" as the predominant cause. For the self-same reason, Charlie Brooker took to his Guardian column in July to announce a break from writing. "I've recently been overwhelmed by the sheer amount of jabber in the world," he writes, "Reader comments form part of the overall wordstorm... and it's true I'm not a huge fan of them." In the article, he seems genuinely world-weary and it's a sad thing. If vexing commenters can break Brooker, how the hell are the rest of us supposed to cope?

Although mankind has relocated to the internet, writing for the web still lacks the romance and respect associated with print media. It's this kind of attitude that makes people wrinkle their nose at parties when I tell them what I do for a living. "I'm a writer," I say. "Who do you write for?" they ask, hoping for a national or a magazine they know. "Um...the internet?" Queue the stony silence that means "we're all writers on the internet love."

Maybe that's why some readers are so unflinchingly critical? Despite our increasingly virtual lives, we still value the tangible. We're still more impressed by a published book with pages and a spine than a Kindle edition because the internet isn't real, it's just an ephemeral clusterfuck of information lingering somewhere between today and tomorrow. If we can't see the direct impact of our actions, the impact doesn't exist.

However, the measures taken by the Huffington Post and Popular Science signal a cultural shift and the heady days of unaccountability are numbered. People are realizing that it's not okay to vilify and publicly shame a stranger just because you can (although, as Caitlin Moran found out in August, if you're going to start a campaign against online abuse, make sure your own digital footprint is clean first).

Luckily, although publishing this article fills me with aquatic metaphors and dread, I'm no way near as traffic-baity as Charlie Brooker and I can cradle my adolescent ego in the relative safety of the blog post abyss. Oh, the bitter sweet protection of obscurity.