There was formerly a rude custom for those who were sailing upon the Thames, to accost each other as they passed, in the most abusive language they could invent... a fellow having attacked him with some coarse raillery, Johnson answered him thus, ‘Sir, your wife, under pretence of keeping a bawdy-house, is a receiver of stolen goods.’
It’s said that the internet promises to usher in a new age of altruism and selflessness but let’s not forget there’s a good side to it as well. Free porn, video piracy, and above all the chance to insult new people. Like the riverboats of Dr Johnson’s London, the online world provides the two things essential to irreverent abuse — anonymity and safety from physical retaliation.
This week’s best raillery came from an unlikely source, the Guardian’s Online Travel section at http://blogs.guardian.co.uk/travelog. Its editor had invited Max, a 19-year-old middle-class north Londoner, to blog his gap-year travels through India and Thailand. The readers were, er, unenthused:
‘I didn’t have time to “find myself” at 19 — I was too busy finding the money to pay my rent.’
‘Is this for the gold or silver DOE award? Where are quentin, rupert and tiggy going to be?’
‘Why does nobody try to find themselves in Belarus?’
Finally, after 400 increasingly abusive posts (and, believe me, it didn’t help when someone discovered Max suspiciously shared a surname with a Guardian journalist) someone called oniongravy posted this gem:
‘I don’t think it honestly occurs to you — and when I say “you”, I mean London-based journos on the nationals — just how incessantly and how forcefully we are fed the stories of the lives of a small subsection of London society… their bleating, self-important voices complaining about their nannies, discussing whether it’s OK to wear a mini-skirt round the Portobello Road if you’re over 40, and yes, just what their kids did on their gap years. It’s so dispiriting and depressing to find that there is less of a cross-section of society represented in the acres of newsprint than 30 years ago.’
Deep down, l’affaire Max was not about Max (who wasn’t bad), but the high-handed means of his appointment (le blog? C’est moi). It was a miniature reworking of the patterns Fraser Nelson observed a fortnight ago — on the conflict arising when a functioning, diverse peer-to-peer network has to contend with lame decisions handed down from a tiny, unrepresentative, self-regarding elite. As Fraser put it, in the wiki-world ‘there isn’t really a vacancy for a ruling class any more’. Or, as the Cluetrain Manifesto has it, ‘Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy.’ Like the Thames riverboats, this is a world without deference.
Slowly media owners are learning that the combined, networked brains of their brightest readers are smarter than them; you need to co-opt them, not exclude them. Businesses are likewise learning that knowledgeable customers (sometimes called ‘prosumers’) often have better ideas than they do. So far, our political class has failed to grasp this. In Britain you could watch Newsnight or Question Time for 20 years and not enjoy the originality and breadth of political thinking you could find from a lazy afternoon spent online. And they wonder why nobody votes? Wikiers of the world, unite.