Online heckling

Thoughtful column by the Guardian‘s music critic, Dorian Lynskey, reflecting on the commenting that now follows almost every piece on the paper’s website…

I’m not convinced, though, that what might politely be described as “robust” debate on the blog generates light as well as heat. The internet has always licensed people to be far ruder than they would be in a face-to-face encounter. In 1990, US attorney Mike Godwin formulated Godwin’s Law: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.” Similarly, as an arts blog discussion grows longer, the probability of the writer being branded “smug”, “pointless”, “arrogant” or “London-obsessed” approaches one.

There is an appetite for genuine debate on the web, but it is often drowned out by the howling of people who seem to regard the very existence of professional critics as an outrageous affront. The subtext is this: anyone can be a critic, so anyone who has the temerity to be paid for the privilege deserves to be put in the stocks.

This is just one front in a wide-ranging battle between the blogosphere and so-called old media. In an ideal world, there should be room for both print critics and online ones, with plenty of overlap between them. Good writing is good writing, wherever it appears. But the campaign is in its early days and there are several years’ worth of grievances to thrash out before a peace treaty can be agreed.

Many of the people who post on blogs appear to be annoyed not by what the writers say so much as the fact that they’re in a position to say it. You can spot this type because they write things like: “You’ve only written this to provoke a reaction.” Or: “Why did you even write this? What a waste of time.” As if writing to complain about a waste of time were not, in fact, a bigger waste of time. Or, my favourite: “Typical Guardian.” Perhaps they also post on the website of Practical Caravan magazine, complaining: “Typical Practical Caravan. So caravancentric.”

The most belligerent voices on the blogs speak with either a weary, condescending sneer or a florid pomposity redolent of Ignatius J Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces. If, as they imply, their taste is flawless and their intellect mighty, then perhaps they could find a better use for these prodigious gifts than taking potshots on websites. Just a thought…