During Adam Buxton's recent, bloody brilliant podcast featuring provocative documentary filmsmith Adam Curtis, the pair spend an engaging few minutes discussing the changing nature of the Internet, agreeing that its dystopian nether regions are rapidly encroaching on the progressive, utopian ideals of its flagship Web Central area. "There's a disenchantment growing," says Curtis. "You can feel it."
He's right. In fact there's so much disenchantment, paranoia and aggression cannoning about on the web, it's managed to become an even more toxic place than it was a year ago, and crikey, that takes some doing. It seems to have morphed from simply poisonous to both poisonous and downright weird, and in a way that's making me nostalgic for a time when the Internet was chiefly the domain of genealogists, hip-hop historians and people who wanted to see pictures of all the different houseboats on the River Nene. Quite what is driving this cybersickness - schadenfreude? The Daily Mail? A global dislike for Piers Morgan? It is a tricky question to tackle, but it's reached a point where social media users are now quite ludicrously jumpy about even the prospect of something worth getting jumpy about.
Example? Andrea Leadsom accidentally describing Jane Austen as "one of Britain's greatest living authors". Now, I can't quite believe I'm jumping to the defence of Leadsom, who's never appeared on my Now That's What I Call Nice Conservatives list, but the ferocity with which, and more alarmingly, the speed at which seemingly reasonable people leapt on what was obviously, and demonstrably, a slip of the tongue, indicates that British social media isn't in the rudest of optimistic health right now.
Before I sound preachy, I ought to mention that I am far from perfect in this regard. Last week when the BBC published the salaries of its highest earners, I noticed that Lauren Laverne and Shaun Keaveny, both presenters on my beloved Radio 6 Music, were mentioned on the list. That day I found myself on a traffic-laden cab ride, assiduously examining Lauren and Shaun's Twitter accounts to check they weren't on the receiving end of any virtual muck-throwing. And what, you might ask as I now ask myself, would I have done if they had been? Would I have leapt on any would-be muck-thrower with some appropriately venomous riposte? Or was I just hoping, subconsciously or not, to witness some manner of Internet nastiness? Whatever the explanation, it was a colossal waste of time I could've spent doing something nice, like reading a book, and also a signal that, as Bacharach and David would have it, "what the world needs now is love, sweet love" - or, to paraphrase, "what the world doesn't need now is yet more spiteful tit-for-tat nonsense on the World Wide Web", which doesn't scan quite as well but you get the idea.
I don't know about you, but I've never been particularly horrid on the Internet, although I've had my moments. I think I've successfully steered clear of outright abusiveness, but many's the time I've looked back at a comment I've bashed out and wondered whether the recipient might have found me excessively sanctimonious, cutting, or just a little bit ranty. So I've had an idea. Each time I'm tempted to write something rude or controversial, I write it - but not on social media; on a page of notes in my phone. Thus, my thumb/brain combo has its little cathartic workout and the dodgy thought is expelled from my system - but it hasn't been spat at anyone or anything except the palm of my hand. I believe this method is working. It's been at least six days now, and I reckon I haven't come close to pissing anyone off. You might like to try it too.
There is also a happy by-product. When viewed later and with the could-have-been comments comfortably out of context, the page of notes makes for bizarre and quite entertaining reading, almost like the script for some weird mid-1970s expressionistic radio play. Hardly any of the sentences look particularly offensive, but it's an interesting conundrum of human conversation that perhaps the least offensive-looking line might have actually been the most controversial remark when emblazoned next to the original post: a fact that only I will ever know. Read on.
- No it's not. It's a moon.
- Yeah. He was beginning to smell.
- I think there are actually two.
- Why would playing a semi-final prove you are capable of winning a Grand-Slam final? Surely only winning a Grand-Slam final would prove you are capable of winning a Grand-Slam final.
- Use punctuation.
- But it doesn't connect with anywhere.
- Shit teeth.
- Next thing will be the occasional word.
- The light on your profile picture makes you look like you have a receding hairline.
- It certainly will if you put your mouth like that.
Neat, huh? So I'm going to carry on. I can't wait until I have about a thousand of them. Then I might sell the whole thing to a newly-signed indie band for them to use as lyrics: it'll probably be better than whatever garbage they themselves... Oh, nooo! I'm being horrid again! Quick! Where's my phone?Suggest a correction