People are always talking about new technologies changing the world. For me, it's not so much technologies that matter, but the extent to which they encourage different forms of communication- ways of speaking, thinking and listening that change the ways we engage with the world and each other. The particularly nasty and undeniably addictive art of commenting on online articles is one of those things. And rather than increasing conversation, it's shutting down debate. I know, because I'm one of the guilty ones. I'm not proud of it, but I have been a troll.
Picture this, I'm scrolling through Facebook, tacitly absorbing hundreds of meaningless bites of 'information' (sound familiar?), and I stop to read an article. Not because it's interesting, though sometimes that happens, but because that headline could easily be lassoed inside that ring of fire known as 'offensive'. I want to hate-read the whole thing, and hate-comment on it, fingers tingling with outrage. For the moment, it doesn't matter what the article was about. If the issue really matters to me (which, in this case, it does), I'm not going to use it as a punching bag to exercise my burning rage about all of the idiots in the world. I'm going to consider it carefully and soundly at a later date. I'm going to write about it, not just shout in quick takedown sentences at people who don't agree.
But this is the new me talking- the old me was riding high on the online comment train, stopping all stations: Mt Moron, Nearsight, Jerktown, population: 1. Then, just as quickly, my comments were deleted, and I was banned from the page. A snarky little message: 'bye'.
The shock rocked me to the core. After all, I was one of those people who usually celebrated a takedown, the shutting down of one belligerent voice, out of step with the rest. Was I, suddenly, that voice? Then gradually, a little voice crept in. 'I must have really got to them. They knew I had a point'. But, of course, this was the high point of my delusion. I realised: this must be how Donald Trump feels.
In the online comment world, it's not the potency of words, or the strength of argument that makes the difference. It's expediency. Of course I had a point that could be explored in depth, listened to, cared about- and even objected to from that base line. But actually, that's not what happens. No one bothers to engage: you just ignore, or delete.
This ability to delete has changed the debate everywhere, to the point where people think the only correct response to ideas which are unpalatable, hurtful, offensive, or just different, is to deny their existence. Think of calls for Germaine Greer to be banned for her absolutely retrograde opinions on transgender women. Sure, she's wrong- but surely talking, research, debate is the way to arrive at a better outcome.
I'm a little uncomfortable with the fact that I'm putting myself in the same basket as a bunch of right wing nutters, and people I outright disagree with- those I have in the past wanted to shut down myself- but on this occasion I felt some sense of how they got that way. People made them think they had a point to begin with, and that their point was intractable, solid, immune to contest. Perhaps deleting those voices we disagree with most is the real danger.