Internet trolls are a small price to pay for engaging comment sections

Upon reading Jessica Valenti’s recent article for The Guardian “the case for ending online comments” I was aghast to read her argument against keeping online comments sections running. It seems to me the equivalent of putting your hands over your ears and singing to block out hearing other voices.

Nonetheless, it has got me thinking about whether “cyber-bullying” and internet trolling are indeed enough to legitimate her case. Valenti argues that “comments are a place where the most noxious thoughts rise to the top and smart conversations are lost in a sea of garbage” yet I have frequently found the opposite. Like many, I cannot wait to read the comments sections after reading an article as, I feel, they extend the narrative beyond the parameters of the article itself and probe subjects that word counts perhaps simply couldn’t allow for. More often than not I see engagement in debate as opposed to “a sea of garbage” but then again, perhaps one man’s garbage really is another man’s treasure I suppose?

Comments sections are like driving. Perhaps a strange comparison but stay with me. Most of the drivers you encounter on your commute are reasonable and abide by the rules of the road. But eventually you’ll come across a driver with a crazed sense of entitlement and importance, in a rush somewhere and willing to speed, beep, overtake and endanger others to get there. Still with me? Great. Like communicating via the web there is a (wind)screen between you and the outside world that means you can get away with a bit more than you would in a normal face to face encounter with someone.

Having been on my R plates for almost a year now and making some small driving errors with other drivers’ eyes on me, I am almost fully convinced that the real ugly, nasty cores within (some) people are awakened whenever they get into that drivers seat. And the same goes for typing up a comment under an article, there’s ultimately nobody else to stop you. Like a vehicle, you’re completely in control of it.

CONVOLUTED DRIVING COMPARISONS ASIDE, despite the “garbage” in comments sections there is some real gold among comments and that shouldn’t be undervalued because some ridiculous stone age, sexist comment is posted among it. Most of the time narrow mindedness reaps what it sows whenever a multitude of people urge a troll back into its cave through retaliation. I mean, if said troll posts his/her comment they are equally taking the risk of criticism also. As someone who trawls through many, many comments in articles simply because I find them fascinating to read, I’ve seen more discouragement of trolls than engagement with them from other commenters. But, it’s completely dependent on the article.

It feels as though the risk of criticism from internet trolls is a risk worth taking if it brings a fresh perspective and one that is perhaps not always agreed with but ultimately valued in bringing colour to an issue and stimulating debate. A friend of mine recently stopped himself from unfollowing Twitter profiles that were at odds with his own point of view. His reasoning behind this was that if you block out everything that is at odds with your own point of view you will be surrounded by only that which you consider correct and bring about the illusion that a certain stance on an issue is the only one that matters. The same is applicable here. Blocking out voices isn’t a viable option for news platforms such as The Guardian.

As someone who edited the opinion section of my university’s student newspaper for a year, I thrived upon reading others opinions on issues. I still (evidently) really enjoy reading opinion articles even the ones that make my blood boil through how (SUBJECTIVELY) wrong I think they are. But surely that is the beauty of opinion writing? I am slightly shocked that as a columnist Valenti would be discouraging engagement from her readers. Her own writing is dependent upon her opinion and opinion articles exist to provoke debate and stimulate thought, they ultimately thrive upon reaction.

The part that hit the hardest in Valenti’s article however was the notion that “Outside of the few places that have rich and intelligent conversation in comments, what is the point of engaging in debate where the best you can hope for are a few pats on the back from strangers for that pithy one-liner?” What’s deemed rich and intelligent is completely subjective and while most aren’t paid to air their opinions, that doesn’t undervalue them. It also seems that a lack of pats on the back from strangers has been the very fuel to Valenti’s fire.

It would appear “the never-ending stream of derision…that you or what you write is stupid or that your platform is undeserved” which Valenti complains about is simply being re-applied to those delivering such notions to her. She’s simply engaging in a never ending “I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I?” battle.

Ultimately, internet trolls who post ridiculous comments simply for the fun of it are a small price to pay for the stimulation of real online debate. And with individuals being able, more than ever, to engage with issues online, de-sensitisation to trolls is imminent if not already happening.

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Is the magic of music being lost in the age of the internet?

As of July, streaming websites such as Spotify will count towards the official UK music charts. With over ten million paying subscribers and over forty million active users, Spotify is increasingly becoming the primary way in which our society engages with music. Although platforms such as Spotify have made music extremely accessible, the traditional ways of interaction, and the manner in which music has been accessed and understood, are becoming increasingly undermined. Music is losing its worth. The artists’ income and remuneration is similarly being eroded and overlooked. We must therefore question whether or not streaming is a good thing? Does it enhance society’s engagement with the industry or has the magic of music been irrevocably lost? The inclusion of streaming in the charts may unfortunately signal the demise of a once thriving industry.

In years passed, the music industry’s biggest hurdle has been in targeting piracy and illegal downloading. But the appealing notion of an accessible and easy-to-use platform, in which the vast majority of music is neatly packed into, has certainly helped to combat the illicit world of music piracy. Andrew Leonard has outlined how Spotify is “so consumer friendly that music piracy has become a non-issue.” More so, streaming platforms undoubtedly accommodate for modern society’s fixation in making things as simple and accessible as possible. But nonetheless, there remains something very unnatural and artificial in jam-packing the music industry into one platform. The ease of access to modern music feels fake a too good to be true.

In using Spotify, we often ignore the knock-on effects; we pretend we aren’t aware of plummeting CD sales and overlook the hardships of small independent music stores. It’s no longer feasible for these independent music stores to stick around if they’re being grossly overshadowed by the hulking monopoly that is Spotify. Blinded by the wealth of music we have access to for just £9.99 a month, (that would be the price of just one album, if even), the predominance of streaming within the music industry is worrying when we consider all that we would be losing. We must question whether streaming’s worth to society is more of a loss than a gain. As David Byrne stated for the Guardian, “we should readjust our values because in the web-based world we are told that monopoly is good for us.”

Spotify and streaming at large have indeed been met with a range of responses from musicians. Radiohead’s Thom Yorke has stated that it “is the last gasp of the old industry.” While Billy Bragg has praised the move as a reflection of modern society’s interaction with music, his concern (along with others) has focused upon the royalties of artists who are involved with streaming platforms such as Spotify. He stated: “There needs to be something done about the remuneration for artists. We really need a new model with the record companies that makes things a lot fairer and get artists to engage with it more.” Is Spotify rewarding record labels as opposed to the work of the actual artists? There seems to be much that streaming has to answer for and maybe we are turning a blind eye to the deals that go on behind closed doors.

David Byrne has noted how that “the major labels are happy, the consumer is happy and the CEOs of the web services are happy. All good, except no one is left to speak for those who actually make the stuff.” It’s difficult to gauge whether streaming is necessarily good because although it provides publicity and recognition for artists, we’re left in the dark as to whether it provides them with a way to live off what they love doing. Stuart Dredge has outlined how Spotify’s “fiercer critics regularly accuse the company of being a loss-making scheme geared entirely towards a lucrative acquisition…that will enrich its shareholders – company executives, venture capital firms and major labels – while leaving artists out in the cold.“ Are we really comfortable with the music industry being in the hands of an overbearing few?

Indeed, now it feels like we’re in too deep. It has got to the stage where it feels almost absurd buying a CD when music can be accessed through our very fingertips. I’m sure I speak for many when I say that a part of me yearns for a return to the age of records, mixed tapes and Top of the Pops – when music was material and seemed to have a bit more magic about it. It was an age that had to listen to the radio in hope of hearing their favourite song or had to purchase the physical record, CD or tape itself. In comparison to today, music is increasingly losing its physical sentimental form. Maybe I have a romanticised view of music’s past, but it seems that there was much more excitement surrounding music twenty or thirty years ago as opposed to logging on to the internet and having it all. We’ve got our cake and are eating it but our humble past still feels considerably more genuine and fulfilling than our current age of excess. Big companies like Spotify greatly depersonalise the experience of listening to music, but is this really going to convince the majority of us to give up this treasure trove of music and abandon such accessibility? Probably not.

As published on studentjournals.co.uk on 30/06/2014

Knowledge is Power

The more I read news articles these days the more horribly paranoid and conscious I become of the Orwellian, dystopian nightmare world of his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Call me melodramatic, but recent moves for censorship of the internet is the beginning of such a culture however elaborate this link may seem. If I think back to the censorship programmes installed on computers in secondary school, they were an absolute hinderance to research and learning. Websites were filed into categories namely ‘nudity’ (but some were slightly more dubious such as the ‘occult’) They were often blocked for the most minute of connections (mostly keywords or swear words). These programmes ensured limited access to websites and therefore, information.

The central motivation of the government filter (which will come into effect this month), is to protect the eyes of children from seeing pornographic content. This seems on the surface, a reasonable motivation for censorship. The problem is that the god-like power of selecting what we do and do not see in our day to day lives is being placed in the hands of a select few, the definition of what is pornographic and negative to the eyes of children, becomes skewed by the authoritative opinion of this select few.

In an article for the Guardian, Laurie Penny has outlined how ” Sites that were found to be inaccessible when the new filtering system was launched last year included in some cases helplines like Childline and the NSPCC, domestic violence and suicide prevention services” This is just an example of the kind of extension of definitions that can and WILL occur from government filtering. Does the noble cause of protecting against pornography and obscene images seem like such a good idea now? The fresh and more dangerous potentialities of allowing power into the hands of a select few is something vastly more worrying than children seeing pornographic images. No one seemingly worries about the (let’s face it, FAR more easily accessible) page 3 of The Sun newspaper (among other publications) that boasts of a different topless lady each day. All it takes is a child to pick up that newspaper be it in a shop or at home, to see such images. If the worry of the effects of pornography on impressionable children was such an ardent issue in the hearts of the government, page 3 would have been done away with a long time ago.

The central issue here is not protecting children, it is the government’s need for monopolisation of the information available to us. Do not be lulled into the comforting thought that children are at the heart of the cause here. This bid for government filtering is the need of a select few to feed information deemed acceptable to us. The extension of definitions of what is bad and what is acceptable is not something to be chosen by anyone other than ourselves. It is also not the duty of the government to protect impressionable children (last I heard that’s what parents and guardians were for? Just putting that out there.)

May I also remind anyone who so chooses to read this, of how ten year’s worth of speeches and press releases promising a better, fairer country from a Conservative government were deleted from archives. This kind of filtering, the cutting and pasting of what information the population can and cannot see, is simply a taste of what is to come if government internet filtering is allowed to be implemented without any objection. It is an insult to the intelligence of individuals in society, as is the idea that without government intervention, children will watch pornography as if parents are non existent. It is ludicrous when you consider the issue in this sense.

It is appropriate that the much slammed Thought of The Day on Radio 4 yesterday, from Julian Assange happened to be this:

“Knowledge is power. To keep a person ignorant is to place them in a cage. So it follows that the powerful, if they want to keep their power, will try to know as much about us as they can, and they will try to make sure that we know as little about them as is possible.”

Keep this in mind as the bid for internet filtering gains momentum. The monopolisation of information is unnatural and it is something to be rallied against. The internet is an equaliser, anyone can contribute to it and anyone can access it. We are at a time when the acquirement of information through the internet is at its most efficient, useful and relied upon. Do not sit back and let that be mutated.