17 May 2011

Comment is crap... why I've cut the CiF

After a frantic period of almost totally inconsequential activity when I seemed to be posting comments on the Guardian's Comment is Free (CiF) site almost every day, I've now retired from such activity for the foreseeable future.

Why? Because it's a waste of time.

It's not that the CiF articles are especially bad. They are a true mixed bag, from brilliant to crap and every shade in between.

It's more that I get the impression that almost no-one who isn't either a troll or a counter-troll reads the comments - and hence, why bother commenting?

The comments on CiF split roughly 50%/40%/10% between:

Type 1: the "astroturfing" right wing trolls

These guys (if they are guys) make extreme comments of a liberatarian/fascist/homophobic/racist/sexist nature (sometimes all 5 at once, which is impressive in a frightening way). They do not engage with any alternative points of view except to reiterate their earlier points with more swearwords and venom. They use a variety of aliases but the posting style and phrasing is similar in most cases, which leads me to believe that the CiF right wing presence is a few people posting repeatedly under dozens of different names. This activity gives an impression of a grass roots movement where none really exists - hence the name "astroturfing". George Monbiot started to expose the astroturfing phenomenon in a very good article last December.

Type 2: the left wing countertrolls

These guys (again they mainly seem to be guys) have been emerging more and more over the last year or so, after a long period when CiF comments seemed to be one long loo-roll of right-wing bile. The counter-troll takes on the right-wing astroturf trolls head on, attempting to rebut their arguments. This isn't quite so easy as it seems as they often have no real argument to speak of in the first place and so the counter-troll is pretty much forced to descend to their level.

I speak from experience here - because I'm one of the counter-trolls. My contributions over the last six months have mainly been brain-dead endorsements of Ed Miliband, George Monbiot, Len McCluskey, Caroline Lucas, Yes to AV, the late Captain Beefheart, my friend Tom Clark who writes for the Guardian... pretty much anything except a rational argument. A good example is this piece by Ed Miliband "Yes to AV is yes to a fairer politics", where I actually managed to grab the much-coveted first comment slot with

YES YES YES... Ed tells it like it is. Vote yes people, for the biggest upset in electoral history... ignore the reactionaries, doom-mongers, naysayers, and CiF's "astroturfing" right wing trolls.

Great sentiments, but sadly little in the way of intelligent ideas. So far, 153 people have 'recommended' this inane comment. Did anyone take away anything of value from it - apart from the possible inference that I hang around on the CiF site refreshing every 30 seconds, waiting for new posts to come up? I don't think so. But such is the life of the counter-troll.

Type 3: genuinely interesting comments

These are the needles in a haystack that actually make it worth reading a CiF thread - intelligent pieces of analysis that don't just fall back on cheap political posturing (whether right or left) but make a point that somebody might not have heard before. But in your average CiF column such insights are few and far between. You get a few more like this on subjects that cut across conventional left-right boundaries, such as religious belief (although Andrew Brown, the editor of CiF Belief, is clueless at best, the comment thread on his posts is usually at least slightly interesting). But you also get even more vociferous nutters - both pro- and anti-religion - on any theological topics.

There is also a fourth type of comment - when the article writer visits the thread to comment on their own article. Some writers - George Monbiot for example, and also the wretched Julian Glover - are quite assiduous about this. Others are never to be seen... probably they've just given the whole experience up as a bad job. Which it pretty much is.

Comment is Free is not the only place on the web where blog comment has degenerated into a trollfest - most newspaper websites suffer from it to some extent. I've also occasionally posted on the Telegraph comment site, and that has a lot of right wingers - although due to the readership, it is more a case of boneheaded right-wing dogma interrupted by the occasional left-wing troll rather than the other way round. Surprisingly, I don't find the comment threads on the Telegraph any more unpleasant a read than the Guardian, really.

Political blogs are also handy hangouts for trolls. The leading centre-left blog sites - Sunny Hundal's Liberal Conspiracy, and Shamik Das's Left Foot Forward - are badly infested with them, for example. The Fabian's Next Left blog less so - partly because Next Left tends to get less trolls anyway, perhaps because the posting rate is a lot less per day. I've noticed that the more articles get posted on a blog, the more likely it is to get trolled. I very rarely read right wing blogs like Guido Fawkes or Conservative Home, but when I do, the comment threads there seem to resemble Mos Eisley spaceport on a very bad day... AVOID.

Some left bloggers have the patience to filter out the trolls manually - most obviously Richard Murphy at Tax Research UK. Richard used to get targeted by about half a dozen people who were just frankly a pain in the ass; once he blocked those people the readability of the thread and his overall traffic went up A LOT. But this kind of active filtering is time-consuming; Richard has had to turn off all comments twice in the last eighteen months because he couldn't cope with the sheer volume of shit coming his way if he was going to hold down any kind of day job at the same time. At the end of the day, that's why trolls rule the blogwaves; there are at least a few dozen trolls out there who seem to be doing it full time, and most blogs have only one moderator, doing it in their spare time.

As the web develops into its next phase it's quite possible that a move away from free-for-all comments and something a bit more like a round-table event - with a specific list of invitees for each post, or a meta-list of people cleared to comment on the site - is likely. This would be a shame in many ways as it would make the blogosphere less of a public good. But on the other hand trolls are a public bad, so maybe there's a tradeoff between openness and quality.

All I know for sure is that - for the moment at least - my CiF posting days are over. Hal Berstram's last CiF post occurred last Saturday, on a story about the ridiculously poorly attended "Rally Against Debt" - spoofed very effectively here. Good luck to the left-wingers on CiF - be they counter-trolls or otherwise - who continue to fight the good fight against astroturf, libertarianism and extremism. I just don't know if anyone is there to see your good work - and at the end of the day the marginal benefit from me continuing to write inane pro-Ed Milband propaganda is zero. So Goodbye To All That. You'll still be able to read Hal on Next Left, the Virtual Stoa, and maybe slagging off Dan Hodges on the New Statesman blog (some writers deserve to be trolled)... but not on CiF anymore. We live... and some of us learn.


8 comments:

red two said...

I'm sure the general approaches you describe apply to every single forum on the internet, be the based on politics, football (certainly), music (probably) or anything else.

A consequence of inability to communicate, inability to debate without polarising views, and office-based boredom leaving idiots with too much time on their hands...

John Broome Saunders said...

Type 1 commentators sound like they come from the "Yes, but don't think that..." school of thought.

Hal Berstram said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hal Berstram said...

Red - it's been a long while since I read a football forum but I can well believe it. Actually I can think of an exception - Sound on Sound where the discussion is usually around which synthesizer plug-in to buy for making techno tracks etc. You get some idiots but nowhere near as many, and I think that's because no-one who isn't a severe nerd to start off with bothers to post on topics to do with hi-tech recording. And often, nerds tend to be more polite (although anyone who's had to deal with university IT services, for example, may beg to differ.)

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