Damian Thompson

Comment threads are closing, thankfully – but the underpants brigade have won

Comment threads are closing, thankfully – but the underpants brigade have won
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 'Oh please not more lies from the LibLabCon BLIAR propaganda machine!’

‘If the author of this article had read the documents of the Council of Chalcedon in the original Greek, then he might not throw around the word “monophysite” with such casual abandon.’

‘Only one way to stop the Caliphate capturing every village hall in this once green and pleasant land and no I don’t mean green as in Ms Caroline Lucas – Vote UKIP!’

I’ve just invented these comments, but if you’ve been anywhere near a newspaper website over the past decade they’ll sound familiar. These days, however, they’re a bit harder to find.

That’s because ‘below-the-line’ comment threads are being killed off by the media outlets that set them up. With a sigh of relief.

Malicious creeps have had their microphones turned off, mid-rant. So have countless monomaniacs who aren’t malicious but who have been sucking the life (and profits) out of the publications that host them. Clever, polite people have lost their platform, too, but I’ve yet to meet an editor who feels their pain.

Unmoderated comment threads are an idea whose time has gone. But they have left an unnerving legacy. Their mood of permanent thin-skinned irritability has rubbed off on everyone.

A decade of posting random thoughts on websites read by millions has turned previously even-tempered folk into querulous bores. They remind me of Viz magazine’s grotesque fogey Major Misunderstanding, whose blazer lapels quiver with indignation every time he thinks his opinions have been challenged. (I know the type, being one myself.)

For five years I was editor of Telegraph Blogs. Every day, from the moment we switched on our computers, we had to live with the drone of the ‘underpants brigade’, as one colleague called them.

To the casual reader, these Y-front warriors were obvious fruitcakes. But they had a sharp eye for the fragility of the journalistic ego. When a blogger confirmed their prejudices – never very difficult to do – they would smother him with plaudits. Certain writers started nipping below the line to confer with their troops; they would return with their self-esteem nicely restored but touched by madness, clutching a goodie bag of fresh conspiracy theories.

Around 2012, enter the Kippers. Comment threads on choral evensong or cancer therapies were taken over by recommendations that we deport Muslims and sink our life savings into silver.

These commenters weren’t typical party members: they belonged to its militant Y Front, made up of recent converts. Vote UKIP! Vote UKIP! Vote UKIP! (Always upper-case: they went nuts if you wrote ‘Ukip’.) There was a Tourette’s quality to their outbursts and it drove everyone mad – and, I’m convinced, cost the Kippers middle-class Tory votes that might have won them a few seats at the last election.

Meanwhile, their equivalents on the Left, the Corbyn-supporting bedsit revolutionaries, mounted a similar infiltration of the Guardian threads. Unlike the Kippers, however, their political dreams came true.

But, though few of us realised it at the time, the great open-thread experiment was coming to an end.

The Y-fronters were always boasting that they were bringing us traffic. True, but advertisers had lost interest in page views. They knew they wouldn’t quintuple their takings just because Freeborn1066 clicked five times in order to expose the Bilderbergers’ infiltration of CBeebies. Those hits were empty calories. Also, Y-front monologues drove away other visitors.

So, to cut a long story short, now the commenters have really got something to be cross about. Their online adventure playground is being padlocked. The Telegraph has closed its comments threads. The Guardian is itching to do the same.

Cue lamentations, earnest strictures and philippics of extraordinary fury, some of them even punctuated correctly. But the commenters haven’t really been defeated; rather, they have taken over – or, at least, their rhetorical style is beginning to dominate every political discussion.

Now that, in America as well as Britain, major outlets are closing their comment forums, this style has spread to social media – and even social life. Comment threads didn’t just encourage people to be tiresome: they encouraged them to be tiresomely cross.

This summer, no Facebook photo of a birthday party was more than a few pixels away from a dreary spat about Brexit or Trump. Kevin Clarke, a columnist for America magazine, has coined the term ‘posts stress disorder’ to describe the exhaustion brought on by vitriolic arguments on social media with ‘former friends and newly estranged relatives’.

The truth is that whining and finger-wagging are strangely addictive. Having developed these habits under comment thread pseudonyms, ordinary people are throwing operatic tantrums under their real names. It makes them feel good – and then bad, when they suffer a savage put-down, and then good again when they think of a suitably poisonous rejoinder. (If you’re reading this article online, you may find a few of the latter when you scroll down: The Spectator still has comment threads.)

This is all very unsettling – especially for those of us who used to be celebrated for our histrionic outbursts, and even made a living out of it.

Now we face competition from (at the very least) hundreds of thousands of amateur pundits who, having swapped everyday manners for digital ones, insist that ‘a believer is free from all traditional restraints’. That’s a quote, incidentally, from the Ranters, a sect of fanatical bores who disappeared after the English civil war. Something tells me they may be about make a comeback.

Written byDamian Thompson

Damian Thompson is an associate editor of The Spectator

Topics in this articleSociety