New media manners – the case against digital rudeness

Comment by Alex Klaushofer.

In keeping with the back-to-school feel of the week, today’s post is about a little-discussed aspect of journalism in the digital age – the rise of a new form of rudeness, and the concomitant importance of good manners.

I’m not talking about the negative effects of new technology on everyday behaviour, like texting while you’re on a date (no, women still don’t like this) or emailing while in the middle of a phone conversation (yes, I can hear the tap-tap), the implications of which are increasingly discussed. What I’m referring to is a little-noticed phenomenon specifically of interest to those of us who write in the online age: the fact that some readers freely use the comment sections of websites to launch personal attacks on authors.

This line of thinking was prompted by a piece by comedian Robert Webb in the New Statesman in August about how he gave up his weekly Telegraph column because he could no longer face the aggressive responses that came from a vocal minority. He calls them the Ghouls – ‘the online green biro brigade who turned up every week to tell me what a useless bastard I was’, and his portrait of their comments will be familiar to anyone who’s published online with a well-used forum. ‘[They] were characterised by a suspicion of nuance, a tin ear for irony, a conviction that political correctness and Stalinism were the same thing, and a graceless irascibility of the kind we are now expected to find endearing in Prince Philip,’ he writes. ‘There was also an assumption of intellectual superiority, rather cruelly undermined by a vulnerability to cliché and an inability to spell.’

A week later, on Radio 4’s Today programme, journalist Sam Delaney reported similar experiences of ‘flippant obnoxiousness’, with his commentators going so far as to cut and paste their unfavourable remarks on his Facebook page to make quite sure he saw them.

Here, too, at the virtual space that is New Model Journalism we have been Shocked and Disappointed by the unexpected levels of online rudeness for which decades of writing for publication have left us unprepared. Alex woke up one morning to find that an unpaid blog she had written for a well-known publication had generated an entire post on a personal website devoted to impugning her professionalism, while Tim’s innocent bicycling copy has won him a near-death-threat. (No, we aren’t linking to them.)

Doubtless, the reasons for this kind of aggression have to do with the ease of reply provided by the internet – if you had to get out your manual typewriter and walk to the post box every time you read something you thought was written by a twat, well, you probably wouldn’t. The impersonality of the medium also gives license to a freedom to voice your thoughts that doesn’t generally prevail at a dinner party, meeting, or in the pub – in the absence of face-to-face contact, it’s easy to forget that the other party is a person, just like you.

I suspect it also has to do with the emergence of an internet culture that is peculiarly British – on the one hand, we tend to believe that the expression of opinion is a Good, the taking-part in a debate even a duty, while on the other, there’s a perceived need to take down a peg or two those who have had the gall to publish something, especially if it’s in the mainstream media.

Does it matter? Shouldn’t we just grow thicker skins? I suggest it does, because it affects the experience and practice of journalism at a time when the profession is under threat; I did feel worse about my work when it subjected to a gratuitous personal attack.

Perhaps more importantly, how we treat each other online sets the tone for the future culture in which publication, as it becomes more accessible and widespread, is forever changed. In the rush of excitement about what’s made possible by new technology, it’s important not to forget what it is to be human, and that we are creating the terms of engagement in this evolving world.

‘Can’ does not imply ‘ought’. So please, as the new term gets underway, let’s mind our new media manners.

Thank you.