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The Wiki Man

The Wiki Man

Rory Sutherland's fortnighly column on technology and the web

6 August 2008

12:00 AM

6 August 2008

12:00 AM

Toby Young in last week’s Spectator remarked on the peculiar malice, as he saw it, of the online comments posted in response to his articles.

He has a point. The people who post comments are not the same reverential folk who form a paper’s traditional print readership. On the other hand, at a time when the Telegraph and the Guardian attract more than 18 million online readers each month, your online readership is no longer a small niche you can safely ignore. Why then do they seem so nasty?

Most people who comment on writings on- line aren’t nasty at all. Responses to blog posts are often complimentary and constructive. It’s largely journalists who get it in the neck — significantly, the online term for a merciless refutation is a ‘fisking’, after the brutal 2001 online dissection of a piece by the journalist Robert Fisk. Much of this is driven by envy and resentment, as Toby suggests. The people posting are incensed that someone is paid to do a job which many broadsheet readers believe they could do better themselves. But there’s another factor which distinguishes journalists from bloggers, making things far worse.

Almost all amateur bloggers read and respond to the online comments posted in response to their writings. Journalists generally don’t bother (in 2005 an interviewer discovered that Fisk himself was unaware of the term ‘fisking’, since he had never used the internet). To an online readership this seems unacceptably highhanded. After all, journalists won’t allow politicians to deliver a statement and then walk off stage. Yet they themselves do it every day.


As someone called Leni remarked this week in response to a Polly Toynbee piece on the Guardian’s Comment is Free section: ‘You never respond so I don’t know if you read the comments. If by chance you do — how do they make you feel?’

In the world of print, there was only one question to ask. ‘What do our readers think of our journalists?’ Online there’s a second question: ‘What do our journalists think of our readers?’ Think about this. Isn’t it a bit odd for someone to write a piece under the heading ‘Comment is Free’ and then not to bother to read the 200 comments?

So Toby Young can easily solve his problem. If he adds his own comments, or responds to those of others, he’ll find the whole mood of the conversation will change for the better. He can abuse people shamelessly if he likes — no one minds that at all. It’s being ignored that makes people mad.

Proof you can buy anything online. Blackwater, the controversial private US, er, security service, is headquartered in a 7,000-acre training compound in Moyock, North Carolina, the largest private military training facility in the world. Its website explains: ‘As one of the world’s most successful security services, Blackwater operates in nine countries delivering critical assistance to clients focused on post-conflict and post-disaster stabilization efforts.’

They also do a great range of colourful branded beach towels. If you don’t believe me, have a look at http://snipurl.com/blackwater — yours for $20. Rather annoyingly they don’t deliver overseas. With one of these folded on the sun-lounger, no one’s going to nick your camera, are they?

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.


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