Saturday, May 1, 2010

Reading Comments

I have spent a few hours re-reading the comments left both here and at other places on the web. Not a comprehensive search, just the main ones the Editor had the time to find, print and send to me. I was hoping that the passage of time may allow me to discern some pearls of wisdom in comments that I had previously overlooked.

Three things immediately struck me. Firstly, that those of you who leave comments responding to my posts here are a very reasonable and thoughtful bunch. Secondly, that this is unusual I A shocking proportion of comments left elsewhere were bereft of any actual thought, just reiterations of bile. It seems that the Web has persuaded a lot of people that they have something to say, when the reality is that they don't. It is rare to read such a collection of asinine, trite, moronic drivel and if the Web did not exist then I think these people would be the ones huddled in the corner of the pub, nursing a single pint all night, randomly spouting alarming comments that saw other patrons look at them in silent pity. Note to the World - just because you have an opinion, it doesn't mean you need to share it and it certainly doesn't mean that all opinions are equally valid. Think before you Send.

Thirdly, it is surprising how it is that inserting 'prison’ into any argument provokes even the brightest of people to check out from their wits and begin to spout utter drivel. One of the first responses to my blogging were the comments left responding to a post by Iain Dale. As this is a Big Important Blog, I expected the comments to be considered and insightful. In fairness, apart from commenters on my Blog, they were the best of the bunch. Even so, a remarkable number revealed crashing ignorance by basing their whine on the 'fact' that I have direct internet access. Doh!

Is it standard practice on the Web to comment on matters of which you know bugger all? Why is that acceptable? Reading some of the comments was like observing a child intruding into an adult conversation - it was rude, silly and slightly embarrassing. And yet people did it in droves.

The blog that took the time to criticise me first was Letter From A Tory (LFAT). Assuming that this person has some standing in the political firmament, reading his post on why I shouldn't blog was quite depressing and frustrating. He dismissed my arguments as to why I should blog out of hand and substituted his own reasoning. And in doing so, revealed a profound ignorance. LFAT complained that prison should focus on punishment, therefore I shouldn't be allowed to blog. This is to completely fail to realise that my punishment ended at the expiry of my tariff, that is twenty years ago! Which brings me back to the question - why do people feel the urge to comment on matters of which they know nothing? Why risk the embarrassment of revealing ignorance on the Web, when you wouldn't dream of doing so in face-to-face conversation?

LFAT also makes a mistake that is incredibly common amongst those who commented upon my Guardian Comment if Free pieces. This is, that they confuse imprisonment as a loss of 'liberty' with imprisonment being a loss of 'liberties'.

The punishment is the loss of physical liberty. In a famous judgement of a bygone era, Raymond V Honey, it was explicitly laid down that prisoners retain their our civic rights except those explicitly removed by law or by necessary implication. That is, we do not, as prisoners, lose all of our liberties, only our liberty. This may come as a disappointment to one commenter at LFAT, who argued that I shouldn't even be allowed to write letters as this expressed an 'intellectual liberty’. Fancy arguing from a logical fallacy that a child may make. Another lost soul with a keyboard and VDU who just couldn't be bothered researching the topic before stunning the Web with his dumb comments.

This may sound rather harsh. It is and I mean it to be. I am used to dealing with a rather more sophisticated level of debate, based on civility and knowledge rather than random spontaneous utterances. I expected better, to be honest, from people who have the knowledge of the Web at their fingertips. Perhaps I expect too much, hoping that people will be guided by knowledge rather than wayward instinct. Seems I was wrong.

I expected the most from the commenters at the Guardian online and it is with those that I am most disappointed. The quality of the comments undermined any idea that Guardian readers were well-informed.

Please understand that I'm not complaining that people disagree with me, the more the merrier in that respect. My disappointment and frustration arises from the quality of what people were passing off as 'reasoning’.

Is the level of public debate being degraded by the Web? It was once the case that only people with knowledge and bravery put themselves up before the mob. Now, anybody and everybody feels able to do so. This may seem wonderfully egalitarian but it misses an important ingredient - ridicule and reputation. In the past, these acted as filters to deter the witless from sticking their heads above the parapet. But people seem to enjoy all of the benefits of the Web - i.e. a public voice - without any of the downsides. And without taking advantage of the heart of the Web its breadth of knowledge. There is no longer any excuse for ignorance before posting a comment.

I hope I am wrong. Once I have direct access to the net then I hope that I will be stunned and delighted by the quality of the debate, that the idea of the web raising levels of knowledge is not a false one. After all, the direction our future civilisation takes will be guided by the web, and if people treat it as a mere public megaphone whilst ignoring its ability to be an endless university then we risk a future which is both extremely loud and decidedly stupid.

I'm just glad that I have excellent comments posted on this blog.


  1. You say, "Once I have direct access to the net then I hope that I will be stunned and delighted by the quality of the debate...". Don't hold your breath - the one thing you can be sure of (it seems to be) in any web debate is that it will quickly descend into a petty, juvenile farce. Removal of anonymity in such debates (meaning that reputations are on the line) is one useful suggestion to improve matters, I think.

  2. With regard to comments on Newspaper websites, I strongly suspect that a lot of people who read right wing drivel from the less informed tabloids go over to better publications and comment just for spite.

    Human cowardice is never more readily displayed that it is on the internet. A lot of what comes off the keyboard of Mr A.Nonymous is nonsense that they wouldn't have the balls to say to a person face-to-face. Personally, I have a rule that I never say anything online that I wouldn't say to a person's face....which makes me just about as popular with utter morons online as I am in real life. :P I agree with Blobby that anonymity should not be an option. I think people should either have the balls to own an opinion or keep it to themselves, which is why I don't allow people to comment anonymously on my blog.

    When you get online as a free man, then if 'surf smart' then you will see far more of the good the internet can do that the bad, I'm sure (I'm just speaking from my own personal experience).

    Twitter, for example is far more than inane 'tweets' of 140 characters or less. I resisted it for a long time because I thought it was a abbreviated Face Book (which I tried and hated!) but to my surprise and delight I found that 'bubble heads' are far outweighed by pretty intelligent people who have lively exchanges on everything from culture to politics and the environment. There's a strong humanitarian streak out there too and I've known lots of people get help when they are struggling with various things.

  3. Yes, I agree very much with Gaina, the majority of people are decent and humanitarian in their outlook, but there are those ignorant types, and I really don't know what motivates them ... I just feel sorry for them deep down.

    However it would be good if I could spell; is there a spell checker that can be switched on? It can kinda get a bit embarrassing you know !!!!!

    It is a lovely blog here, it has got a nice feel to it and good vibes, whatever you do Ben, don't stop it (at least until the fat lady sings!). All the best, thinking of you xxx

  4. Yup, as the others who have commented first have suggested, if you come to teh Internets looking to find it a Utopian garden of intellectual prowess, you will be sadly disappointed. It follows Stergeon's law: "90% of everything is crud".

    I think that's just what you get when you remove all the usual rules that govern social behaviour by making it anonymous, and it has been the case since the earliest forms of social media in the '90s. However, part of the fun is learning to find to the oases of rational thought and logical debate (such as this blog).

    Twitter is fantastic. It also contains 90% drivel, but you can largely avoid that by choosing intelligent people to follow. It allows we the people to respond to what our politicians and journalists are saying lightening fast and to be heard (#nickcleggsfault is a perfect example).

  5. "Sturgeon's" law, of course. It would be nice if I could spell too ;)

  6. Is it standard practice on the Web to comment on matters of which you know bugger all?

    Als, yes. I only recently (within the last nine months or so) started using the web and, like you, expected a lively forum of debate. Sadly, my expectations have been confounded - so much so that I really do have to wonder why newspapers go so far as to allow people to post comments on articles. Even the hallowed BBC discussion pages rarely rise above the level of ill-informed ranting.

  7. Wigarse-one question how do you know who is intelligent?
    Does being intelligent prevent you spouting rubbish or is just spouting rubbish just not the opinion. Should newspapers prevent publication of people's opinions? Isn't that what occurs in various dictator states. Ben I have followed your blog throughout but this just came across as seriously bitter and twisted and not very pleasent. Sorry.

  8. Nice to read you again, Ben. I too am puzzled by the folk who hang around Guardian CiF, not at all the sort I would expect. Your serious point about freedom of expression rings true at election time. An essential for democracy is fair and accurate information, whether it be about the intentions of would-be political leaders or the cries of the oppressed (including prisoners of any kind). Let people speak so that we get our impressions from source.

  9. @johnnyh

    "one question how do you know who is intelligent?"

    You use your own critical faculties and power of reasoning - I hope. If you honestly think that all opinions expressed on the web are backed up with a complete working knowledge of the subject matter, then you're out of your mind. You only have to spend a few seconds reading comments on Daily Mail articles to see commentators that haven't read past the headline before sticking their oar in.

    I don't think Ben is suggesting that media outlets should ban people from expressing their opinions. He's asking that people should make sure they know what they're on about before they use the extraordinary expressive power the internet gives them. That's not bitter or unpleasant. It's common sense.

  10. There are also a lot of really crap comments/posters on here.

    Also I would be interested to know why you would expect better of Guardian readers!

  11. It's the wild, wild, west; there is room for all, so the Normal Distribution of talents will apply.

    What is happening is spontaneous tribalism, as each 'type' gravitate to those who most resemble, and or attract them. As Churchill predicted, "In the future there will be empires of the mind."[paraphrased]

    Geographically, humanity probably left the jungles as nomads. Later they tended toward agriculture, which lead to cooperative city states, thence to nations, and finally to empires.

    And just as you have international politics and war with geographical states, so will you have with internet tribes.

    Expect a lot of 'third world' debate between the 'city' oases. The question is: do you want to be a roving cowboy, or a fenced-off shepherd?

  12. The internet is a god send, lot's of good stuff, and yes lot's of crap too, the point about it is if people wern't banging on on one internet forum or another, they would be sitting in a pub talking crap. that's not to say everyone who sits in a pub talks crap, but you know what i am saying?

    Just a place to air views. Ben, i have been to jail too, but only for a short time, therefore our experiances are different. I am offten asked what it is like, but my interpritation is very different to yours.

  13. jonnyh,

    Sorry, I think I chose the wrong word there, I meant to say "interesting". I really don't care how smart someone on Twitter is, as long as they are interesting; intelligent people can be dull and vice versa.

    Rationality and logic are exceedingly important to me personally though, and all too infrequent, from everybody.

    I don't think Ben's post was bitter, just a bit disappointed. But I think that's an understandable reaction. The things my fellow humans spout get me down occasionally too and I am a massive fan of the internet and the change it can bring.

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  15. Hi Wigarse,
    fair enough I understand-I have followed Ben's blog for quite some time. I just didn't particularly like the tone of this particular entry.

  16. I was in correspondence with the government about IPPs and referred to Ben's blog and got a snotty email from an MP who said 'he had never heard of Ben's Blog' and 'could not find it anywhere'. I do not want to think it was yet another lie from the government so concluded that the particular person who could not type 'Ben's prison blog' was one of the people mentioned in this particular blog sho was showing his ignorance!

  17. Everything you write is true, Ben. I think there's a number of root causes. Firstly intelligent people say less and, exasperated by the pure drivel on publicly available comment slots, often stop talking. Youtube, with its many useful attributes, attracts the worst of the worst - I know nobody who doesn't use it, and also nobody who would bother commenting on a video.

    Secondly comments aren't the place to look for intelligence - they are the equivalent of pub talk. Try individual forums, which require registration and so are not anonymous. For example I can describe a crunching noise under my car and, in 5 minutes, have the exact problem diagnosed. Try that without the internet.

    Thirdly, just because someone's said it, as you point out, doesn't mean it's worth reading. So don't. Many of the best and most interesting places are those that censor rubbish, block abusive users and don't allow anonymity.

    (ed - if you print this out, Ben might like the following cartoon - )

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