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What’s the point of turning the net into a giant lavatory wall?

When I give someone a book as a present, I don’t hand them a marker pen so they can scrawl “DID YOU GET PAID FOR THIS?” on the final page. So when did we get the idea that allowing comments on articles was a Good Thing?

The anti-comment backlash has been gathering pace for a while now. Every so often, a writer puts their head above the parapet to say that, actually, they don’t really enjoy every facet of their life, career and appearance being raked over directly underneath an article they’ve spent time crafting. Or that they feel slightly miffed that a drive-by “YOUR SHIT” or “FIRSSSST” gets almost equal prominence with their original work.

A few places have already taken the step of removing comments: one of them is the satirical Daily Mash website. “One of our well-worn catchphrases is: 'I have no interest in your worthless, ill-informed opinion. And we’re not kidding,'” the Mash’s editor, Neil Rafferty, told me. “What you don’t want is to write a piece of comedy and immediately below it, have lots of people trying to be funnier than you. It’s a tiresome experience and it detracts from the actual article. It was banned fairly early on; we tried it for two weeks and it was hellish.”

Generally, however, writers who complain about comments are deemed to be lily-livered. In public, legions of stompy-boots gladiatorial bloggers laugh at their weakness. In private, other writers tell them just to ignore what’s written under their articles. I think at this point it’s safe to say there are two types of writer: those who worry about their comments, and those who don’t read them.

So why have them at all? The usual reason is that they promote audience engagement, and allow readers to “have their say”. But I find that people with something considered and interesting to offer have plenty of ways to get in touch: they can @ me on Twitter or write an email for a start. I’m also happy to host responses here on my blog (for example this and this).

The idea that disabling comments is returning to a model where journalists told the audience things, and the audience mutely accepted what was slopped out, is nonsense. Even the most generous estimates reckon only 1 per cent of readers leave a comment. So banning them doesn’t stop people having their say: it stops one in a hundred people creating an aura of authentic grassroots reaction.

What does abound in comment sections, of course, is abuse: racism, sexism, homophobia. In the wake of stories about “internet trolls” targeting Louise Mensch, Noel Edmonds and Fabrice Muamba, there has been a great deal of agonising over why the people involved don’t know what they’re doing is wrong. There’s a glaringly simple answer: they look around, see an internet reduced to a Giant Lavatory Wall, and decide to get in on the act themselves. Their misfortune is to target celebrities, and to get caught. There are thousands of others out there who abuse the powerless, and stay anonymous for ever. Anonymity encourages irresponsibility, and “one-up-manship” sees threads degenerate into name-calling quicker than you can say Godwin’s Law.

Until this point, however, I’d naively assumed that comments were part of the deal: they encouraged clicks, which made money, which paid for loafers like me to eat swan and dictate the occasional blog from my chaise longue between puffs on a silver cigarette holder. Then I read this piece by Joel Johnson at Animal New York (which, incidentally, deals with points I won’t go into now, such as the fact that the occasional good comment thread makes us dramatically over-estimate the worth of all the rest).

He writes:

Comments are likely a cost-of-doing-business for most content sites, not a revenue generator. This has been somewhat known for years for any high-volume site that is forced to require human content moderation–humans cost money, whether they are hand-moderating content, shepherding conversation, or building automated tools to allow user-moderated content.

Moreover, the most active commenters are given a sense of entitlement by the deference they’ve been given by media experts and all-internet-is-good-internet cheerleaders over the years, leading to authors who live in perpetual fear of shaming by the very people who are supposedly their most ardent fans. We somehow fooled ourselves into thinking we owed random people the right to comment on our work literally on our work, that this was somehow an integral part of the commons. 

One of the most active cheerleaders of commenting is the Guardian, which employs a dozen or so moderators, plus another dozen “community co-ordinators” who monitor Facebook, Twitter, Tumblrs and so on (the paper doesn't give out an exact number). Assuming these people are on a modest £20,000 each, that’s nearly half a million pounds a year spent on making sure that the “community” – 1 per cent of readers – is well-served. It’s a sizeable outlay, and therefore it needs a sizeable justification. Sometimes it might be: specialist blogs, for example, do get engaged and informative comments threads (I’m thinking, for example, of the Jack of Kent thread on “David Rose”). But for generalist publications it’s harder to make the case.

Anyway, by way of irony, I’ve decided to leave comments open on this post. Have at it. Alternatively, write a thoughtful, considered comment and put your real name next to it, to prove me wrong.

Troll Hunter: Noel Edmonds. Photo: Getty Images

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle