Wednesday, 23 October 2013
A few weeks ago, an old colleague from revered US magazine Popular Science began promoting the fact that he’d decided to switch off the comments section on their site*. Without even reading what he wrote, I knew the reasons why he did it and I agreed with them. He’s since made his case on various other media outlets in print, radio and so on. This latest commentary from New Scientist finds some truth in what I’ve believed all along: that user-generated content – what those who are fluent in web parlance refer to as “Web 2.0” – is probably a hindrance to productive conversation.
It echoes many of the sentiments of a book I read back in 2007, before Facebook became such a phenomenon. Andrew Keen’s Cult of the Amateur theorised that instead of embracing diversity, people on the internet would more likely flock to like social groupings that validate their own oddball beliefs; that instead of making everyone smarter through the free exchange of information, the internet is likely to reduce our collective intelligence.
As the co-founder of a web-forum that now enjoys more than 70 million page impressions per month, I know a thing or two about how easily a conversation on the internet can escalate into an epic flame war. You’re constantly hitting F4 to refresh the screen, waiting for your chance to pwn a complete stranger with a witty comeback that you’d spent days formulating. It’s a place for misplaced egos to flourish, where the prospect of being published so freely, quickly and easily inflates one’s sense of importance. The prospect of instant publication, reaction and legitimacy is the very empowered connectedness that the internet promised from the beginning. This environment eventually spawned a subculture of trolling behaviour that captured the attention of the mainstream media. And then, even the mainstream media began adopting such behaviour.
And as a result, people are meaner, snarkier, less tolerant, and quicker to lose their temper. I have no way to prove this; it may simply be that I’ve been hanging around a lot of angry people.
That said, the continued presence, growth and influence of user-generated content isn’t surprising to me, and it’s not difficult to figure out. Every time someone makes a quip in the comments section, every time someone refreshes to see if anything new has been said, it adds a page impression to the site’s traffic. The more traffic a site has, the more advertising it can attract. Flame wars that were once thought of as fortunate coincidences are now being deliberately engineered by some companies as a cornerstone of good publishing strategy.
In the grand scheme of things, these flame wars are always a storm in a teacup. They amount to very little, and they add nothing of value to the conversation. Yes, of course, there is the odd contributor who has a valid alternative point to make, but it’s usually one against a sea of ignorance. If the journalists and creators of the original content are competent, these alternative views should’ve been covered; but on balance, the vast majority of user-generated content is worthless.
That’s not to say it isn’t a legitimate part of public discourse – it’s a boon for celebrity sites that thrive on the size of people’s bottoms, not to mention all the opinion-led sites. But for sites that have something genuinely new and interesting to say, where the staff grumble to each other in the hallways about opinions being like assholes, it’s time to recognise that Web 2.0 was never meant for everyone.
*I’m not linking to the site because it’s geo-blocked; Australian readers are redirected to a localised site that’s frankly not the same thing.