Mindset of the mob – a response to John Waters

An opinion piece about the effect of “new forms” of communication appeared in the Irish Times on Friday last, written by John Waters.

While the piece makes some succinct and witty observations, I believe that it fails to comprehend the breadth of application of what is collectively referred to as “new media” (with scope as varied as the authors describing it).

There are many levels of discourse on the Internet, much as there are many levels of discourse in print and speech. I think it is a mistake to allow anonymous, unmoderated comments to be added to newspaper articles, even blogs – depending on the context.

I believe John is correct in assessing that the particular method currently employed by the newspaper adds no value to the article whatsoever. However, it is unfair to generalize all forms of new communication as subject to the same problems or that even those “abusive” and “posturing” comments are objectively useless.

In fact, “the mob” needs a place to harmlessly churn and rage and eventually either blow out or become coherent and constructive. At the bottom of a news article is not the place for that. It’s easy to mock, but as long as someone is communicating at all they can be engaged and even educated. It isn’t necessarily the place of the newspaper itself to do so, however it is the place of every person to educate and help their fellow countrymen in whatever small way they can. That’s what the Internet can facilitate like no other medium before; places like Boards.ie present a method for people to discuss and educate themselves and others with little material cost, but perhaps a large personal gain.

However, as much as it allows for that, the greater the reach something has, the higher the value becomes for some people to become those that John pithily describes thusly:

“Most contributors appear mostly to want to draw attention to themselves, seeking to convey strength, cleverness, cynicism or aggression, while pre-empting the possibility of hostility or ridicule by pushing these responses in front like swords.”

This is not a problem confined to the new media. This is something that has been with humanity since man realized he had an audience for whatever he was doing. It’s less mob mentality than it is stage mentality; the same as the wino who starts a mocking dance in front of a street musician playing to the crowd, or the manic street preacher perched upon his box, eulogizing at anyone in range.

It’s easy to lay the blame for problems upon the technology itself, despite the inherent blamelessness of technology. Technology needs to be applied correctly. Though, to be fair to John, he does postulate towards the end of the piece that the problem may be representative of a change in society.

Blogs and Twitter and Facebook and forums and comments are not interchangeable terms and they are not the same thing packaged up differently. It would be akin to sweeping broadsheets, tabloids, celebrity magazines, paper pamphlets and sticky notes all up into one big amorphous glob, calling it “old media,” and then going on to say that broadsheets and sticky notes are inherently worthless because celeb magazines are mindless trash.

Allowing anonymous, unmoderated comments on newspaper articles is comparable to leaving your front door wide open while throwing a party. You will inevitably have gate crashers, whether malevolent or simply “friend of friends”, and these people are ultimately unaffected by the condition your house may be in after the party.

John is right when he describes these people as attention seeking, but they are not stupid, nor are they even unusual. In newspaper comments they are simply being given, on a platter, a platform they have not proved themselves capable of contributing to, while being respectful of other readers and contributors.

What we now consider “newspapers” are what some blogs will undoubtedly eventually become and in fact have already become (the likes of The Huffington Post, for example.) Even now, the lines are blurring; Rupert Murdoch is planning on introducing a “pay wall”, but that horse has already bolted. Journalists should, need to, embrace the new technology that is being made available to them. Absolutely, there is a need to understand this technology rather than simply shoehorn it into current processes, or apply it lazily, but there is also a need to be careful not to scorn or attempt to decry these new channels that will almost certainly become the news outlets of tomorrow.

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One Comment

  1. Posted November 9, 2009 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

    Solid post, I find it ironic that Waters’ article seemed so contemptuous of the back and forth relationship that web-based writing/reporting often involves in a medium that is fundamentally devoid of that kind of feedback. I know I’m not adding a tremendous amount to the debate here, but the whole thing rubbed me the wrong way in a, “Look how good I am, are you not impressed by the fact that this text has been printed? it is on paper… that makes me better than you,” kind of fashion.

    Again, might just be me, but I felt a little riled by the whole debate. Of course, not having a medium in which to respond, I did what comes naturally… I forgot about it and got on with my life.

    I think it might be better to engage a bit more with a readership.