This piece was written in the summer of 2011 just before the News of the World hacking scandal came to light, but I waited a month or so before publishing it because it seemed a bit mean to be criticising the Guardian just when they’d done such sterling work in bringing down such an atrocious newspaper – see footnote at bottom. Looking down the list of sins below, it strikes me that things have actually improved a bit since I wrote the piece, at least at the Guardian – elsewhere, though, the idea that the most important thing about friends is that you should be able to count them and show them photos of your food still holds sway, so I think that makes this still valid.
People often want to ask me why there’s no “comment” box at the bottom of these pieces. The polite answer is that I assumed you all had much better things to do with your time. It didn’t occur to me that anyone would be reading all the way to the bottom.
And the sensible answer would be to point out that a blog such as this one – one that doesn’t aim to inform, but simply celebrates its own existence by shouting me me me like a spoilt toddler in Waitrose – is, by its very nature, not the sort of blog you’d want to talk to.
But the real answer, of course, is that just five minutes reading a comment thread is enough to make any sane person put down their laptop and head off into the nearest wood to stare bleakly at the snowdrops and wonder why humanity doesn’t just call it a day. And I don’t want to be held responsible for any of you nice people playing Russian roulette with the pretty-coloured mushrooms.
Recently, for instance, I’ve been catching up on some of David Mitchell’s “Soapbox” videos on the Guardian website. And, beneath each one, for no obvious reason, people are encouraged to comment on what they’ve just watched. Or, more often, what they claim they’ve just refused to watch on the grounds that David Mitchell is unfunny/over-exposed/not-as-good-as-he-was, which does make you wonder why they navigated to a dedicated David Mitchell page in the first place; presumably just simple altruism, a desire to stop the rest of us – us dimwits who foolishly hadn’t yet realised that David Mitchell was unfunny/over-exposed/not-as-good-as-he-was – wasting 3’12” of our time and possibly being tempted into buying any of clip-sponsor Bulldog’s male grooming products and winning a David Mitchell goodie bag.
I’m trying not to think what a David Mitchell goodie bag might contain, by the way. Used underwear? A plastic figurine of Robert Webb with its dripping heart torn out? Some pencils?
You could equally wonder, of course, why those people who do find him funny – and they do exist, so either the aforementioned refuseniks are wrong, or (and you might need to hold on to something at this point) humorousness has a hitherto unsuspected subjective element to it – also feel that it’s vitally important that the rest of us are made aware of this, something they achieve by writing the words “Great piece, David, my thoughts exactly” in the comment box and adding a smiley face. Maybe, as before, it’s altruistic – maybe they’re worried that the Guardian might not have actually realised that David Mitchell has the facility to amuse people, and think the paper had, in what admittedly turned out to be a huge slice of luck for Mr Mitchell and fans of his sort of humour, simply alighted randomly on his name in the phone book when casting around for new columnists.
Or maybe – and I suspect this is the sad truth – it’s all just yet more digital buboes symptomatic of a post-millennial epidemic: the pathological need to constantly share, as if we’ve all suddenly become needy teenagers with no social skills, massive self-esteem issues, and a rampaging id that doesn’t know the meaning of the phrase “nobody cares”. And what’s the metaphorical basket of tainted Dutch cotton that precipitated this plague? Well, that’s easy: it’s Facebook and its precursors.
Oh, rubbish, you say – or you would if I’d let you – you can’t blame the messenger. The need to share has always been there in the human psyche: Facebook et al were just the long-awaited means. If there was no demand, then why would any sensible person have bothered to invent them, huh? And then I have to point out that they weren’t invented by sensible people. They were invented by needy teenagers with no social skills and massive self-esteem issues on whose geeky planet a person’s worth really can be gauged simply by counting how many “friends” they’ve got and how many people “like” them. I’m not denying that, as far as the Zuckerbergs of the world were concerned, there was a demand – in fact, I’d guess they were genuinely bemused that the rest of us couldn’t, at first, see it: didn’t all of us tot up our friends each evening and arrange them in order? But these weirdoes are weird…
The thing is, rather than just being grateful that they channelled their energies into computer programming, rather than taking the more old-school route of trenchcoats and high-velocity rifles, we act as if all this is normal, not freaky, by typing the phrase “Great piece, David, my thoughts exactly” into a comment box; the simple point they’re not our thoughts exactly – otherwise we’d be on TV like Mr Mitchell, and not stuck in front of a cheap PC in a curry-stained Glasto ’97 T-shirt – having clearly eluded us. But we’re able to do this – type inanities into a comment box – only because the Guardian employs people to provide and monitor such a service; rather than – and here’s a radical thought, in these days of falling print circulations – employing someone to do journalism. Or, perhaps even more usefully, to go round all members of staff on a daily basis explaining why “epicentre” is not a clever way of saying “centre”.
Many things are possible with the internet, but they’re not all necessary. Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you have to. And I’ve a horrible feeling that the Guardian – and the BBC (“why not text us your thoughts on…”) and myriad others, I’m only picking on the Guardian because I feel sorry for David Mitchell and because I’ve got a copy of last Friday’s paper in front of me – do all this stuff because… and I’m afraid there really isn’t a better way of putting this… editor Alan Rusbridger thinks it makes them look cool and hip to where it’s at, blud and/or daddio. Rather than just, well, stupid.
In that issue of Friday’s paper I just mentioned, for instance, I find:
- The Readers’ Room. A two-page spread composed of random phrases plucked from various messageboards commenting on random articles. Two pages. TWO WHOLE PAGES. Of random members of the public telling me that a piece I’ve already read was “a must-read”.
- From the Blog. A column collecting out-of-context comments from the Women’s Page blog in much the same way as the above.
- Comment is Free. A random selection of four items that have recently appeared in the Guardian’s on-line version for us to comment on (presumably by scribbling on the paper in biro and posting it back to them… or by going online…).
- The Referendum. In which random members of the public vote yes or no about something sporty.
- Readers’ Reviews. A list of random phrases from random members of the public who’ve agreed/disagreed with other random members of the public excised from a messageboard we don’t have the full text of because we’re reading A NEWSPAPER.
- Private Lives. A page of words about personal crises compiled from the emailed comments of random members of the public in order to avoid having to employ or pay any journalists.
- Click to Download. A list of links to music to download. Which we can only do if we put down the NEWSPAPER WE’RE READING and go to a computer. In which case we needn’t have bothered walking to the newsagent. But we did.
- Clip Joint. I’ve saved this till last because it’s my favourite. Clip Joint, you see, reprints a selection of comments from an online messageboard on which random members of the public pick favourite film clips for no apparent reason. Online, the discussion is stimulated by video clips you can play by clicking on them. In the paper, there are screenshots. Yup, screenshots of video clips we can’t play because, Mr Rusbridger, YOU’VE PRINTED THEM IN A NEWSPAPER.
If I want to read the Guardian online, I’ll read it online. And if I want to read it on large sheets of inky paper, I’ll do that. But I DON’T want to read excerpts from the online version in the paper, any more than I want to cut articles out of the paper and sellotape them to my computer screen before reading them.
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I actually wrote this a while ago, but then the Guardian did the world a favour by exposing all the Murdoch stuff and it seemed a little ungrateful. But I think enough time’s passed, and nothing’s changed… other than that one of the Readers’ Room pages has temporarily been replaced by a truly pointless page for children, because it’s the summer holidays. (Shades of Radio 4’s atrocious Go4It, an attempt to do an audio Blue Peter which was cancelled after surveys revealed it was listened to only by the over-55s and two terrified 7-year-olds in East Dulwich called Caedmon and Ocarina.) Can’t help noticing that no Times journalists seem to have resigned in shame, by the way, or any HarperCollins authors asked to have their contracts annulled. He’s still in charge, you know.