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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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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.