A reader whose opinions and judgement I respect has told me something which has niggled at the back of my brain for several days.
These days, when reading a column or blog on-line, he said, he tended to scroll first of all down the page to the message-boards. It was the debate among readers which told him whether what was written above it in the article itself was worth reading.
That would seem to be the way things are going. We all love a ruckus. A piece which has provoked passionate support or disagreement among readers is likely, the thinking goes, to be more compelling and of the moment than one which has merely been read.
How devastatingly depressing that is. Some of the columns I have been most pleased with have failed this test. Until now, I had hoped that they had been quietly appreciated, that a message was redundant. The fact that they had raised no matter for general discussion did not detract, I thought, from their value.
The general movement, though, is towards ruckus journalism. In a lecture about Twitter and citizen journalism, the Guardian’s editor Alan Rusbridger argued for what he called “the power of collaborative media”. An article today should arrive at a consensus view, thanks to the input of readers and their varying opinions, the argument went.
I distrust this idea to the point of hatred. As I wrote during a piece about Twitter in The Author:
“It seems to me that the last thing any serious-minded author needs is a conversation. The idea that writing can be a communal activity, often encouraged on creative writing courses, is a recipe for banality. The case made for Twitter may sound fair, consensual and democratic, but writing is not like chairing a committee of different opinions and then summarising the majority view. It is a dictatorship.”
To understand the weakness of the collaborative argument, one needs to visit a message-board. Among the sensible comments, and almost always outnumbering them, are rants and jokes and messages of varying degrees of nastiness. Some are simply bonkers.
It is said that the problem of graffiti has declined since the social media provided an alternative outlet for abuse, insult and exhibitionism, and one can see why. The combination of anonymity and the chance to hurt or show off is powerfully attractive.
It is unwise for a columnist to worry too much about what is written under his column, and to answer back, or become involved in the debate, as some columnists do, is even more rash.
I was briefly tempted last week. I had written a column about Hugh Grant’s early celebrity, as seen from the perspective of someone who used to play foot ball with him, and on the message-board a pseudonymous reader had pointed up my own snottiness in the form of an anecdote.
He had seen me filling up “an impressive-looking gold 4 x 4” at a petrol station in Bury St Edmunds. When he (or she, but somehow it seems like a he) had been friendly towards me, I had seemed bewildered and hostile.
Wha-what-what? Not one item about this story is true (except, perhaps, the bewilderment of a gold 4 x 4 owner) but there it is on-line, joining the vast mountain-range of fictional bilge on the internet.
My article about fame and someone with who I used to play football was not profound, but a glance at the messages that appeared below it hardly supports the Rusbridger case for collaborative media.
Once the message-board shouters begin to have a real influence on what is being read and written, it is not just the quality of the writing and argument which will suffer.