It's illegal these days to write any kind of comment about the internet, people engaging with the internet or any kind of disenchantment with the internet without referencing Stephen Fry, and I'm not really awake enough to start challenging the natural order of things. So: a couple of weeks ago Stephen Fry made a more involved attempt to explain how he felt about certain people's way of using the marvellous methods of communication we have these days ("these days"? I sound like I'm a spot of arthritis away from qualifying for my bus pass. And you know, my hip does feel a bit stiff):
"I don't know about you but whenever I read a blog I do not let my eye
drop below half the screen in case I accidentally hit the bit where the
comments reside. Of all the stinking, sliding, scuttling, weird,
entomological creatures that inhabit the floor of the internet those
comments on blogs are the most unbearable, almost beyond imagining. Their resentment, their desire to be heard at the most vituperative
level, at the most unpleasant and malevolent, genuinely ill-willed
malevolent, level is terrifying."
Naturally, this is a bit of a sweeping generalisation. Most of the people who inhabit this blog, and most of the blogs I frequent, are thoroughly lovely people. But then, every now and again, I stumble across something that takes me aback. There's a comment, for example, that I'm not going to link to, which appeared recently, saying something unpleasant, uncalled for and borderline offensive about a friend; not even left on the friend's blog – no, not brave enough for that – but left somewhere the subject was likely to see it. What manner of cowardly weasel does that?
But it's everywhere: there's someone registered as mystery_comic on Twitter who, aside from posting desperately unfunny 'jokes', makes it his mission to send insulting tweets to actual, real, talented comedians. Robin Ince has been a recipient of his, and others', malicious messages. Several comedians on Twitter have mentioned a trend for tweeting criticisms and including the person's username, to make sure the comments get seen. Why? What's the point? Is "their desire to be heard at the most vituperative
level" so desperate they'll do the online equivalent of standing outside someone's living room window, shouting? Now, I'll admit to including a username in an outburst today, but complaining about not being able to make contact with a theatre and not knowing whether you've booked a ticket is an awfully long way away from telling someone they're as funny as AIDS.
How have we ended up at a point where people think they have a 'right' to hear and be heard? The Tiger Woods thing actually ended up on the Today programme yesterday. Radio 4. Being discussed in the same hour as troops to Afghanistan and banker's bonuses. Tiger Woods and his marital problems, and some BBC correspondent saying (I paraphrase, I was making toast at the time and trying not to get apricot jam everywhere) that he should tell us what happened, because we have a right to know. What?! No, we don't! Being in the public eye doesn't mean you get your sense of privacy surgically removed, and an LED display broadcasting your every thought implanted in your chest instead. Would you knock on your neighbour's door and demand to know the ins and outs of why he crashed into that tree in his driveway? Would you? Because if he and his wife are having domestic problems, it arguably has a greater potential for impact on your life than Tiger Woods. But you wouldn't, would you? Because that would be real life and we still – in the main – respect each other's boundaries in the flesh.
Or, we do if we're the stilted British.
But when the expression of the person you're bitching about, and to, is hidden, apparently that's different. And easier. And, in some quarters, acceptable. Is there suddenly a deficiency of imagination and empathy? Or has there always been, and the internet is allowing it to gush out? Has the hateful, destructive spirit of the Mail always been latent within our society, repressed beneath the fear of reprisal when unleashed face to face? I don't know; I'm just someone who writes stupid blog posts in what I vainly hope is a funny way. (And occasionally get vicious little comments plopping into my inbox as a reward.) But sometimes I despair of humanity.