My family, it appears, are a “bunch of ugly, sad losers”. My wife is so “desperate” to leave me that she will “**** the next man she has a drink with”. My beautiful children are, variously, “pathetic…spoilt…probably adopted” because I am “unable to get it up…a waste of space…a miserable, untalented tosser”. Worst of all though, my kitchen is “hideous”.
So this is what being trolled feels like. Not just any old online bullying but the best money doesn’t have to buy. MailOnline, a website – a brilliant, addictive, masterfully designed website without a doubt – that is the benchmark of anonymous bullying, abuse and grammatically incorrect barbs.
This week I wrote what I felt was a thought-provoking, if slightly tongue-in-cheek, confessional about my enforced 12-month sabbatical as a stay-at-home dad trying to set up a new business after sudden redundancy. I thought I’d love the experience and the children would treasure my new domesticity but, instead, it hasn’t quite worked out like that. They miss Mr Executive, I miss the stress and, bizarrely, the workaholic guilt that once inspired my nightly and weekend paternal duties.
The piece was accompanied by some pretty cheesy photos and a woefully inaccurate headline about me being in despair and my children losing all respect for me, sentiments I expressly asked not to be used in the headline. But I’m big and ugly enough to know how things work – I was, after all, once the ruthless journalist on that side of the fence. There’s no point in being bland, you need attitude to inspire a reaction.
And what a reaction. Obviously I am entirely at fault and knew what I was getting into. But it was the severity of the abuse that stunned me. I just thought people would think I’m feeling a bit sorry for myself and that I looked ridiculous with my marigolds on.
But it made me understand better how the anonymity of the web has allowed hate and anger to be the festering, defining emotions of our age. There are many reasons to account for the rise in Ukip, for instance, and this is one of the most important.
It seems everyone has the capacity, if not the need, to be a bully. I suspect many of those who were appalled by both my attitude and taste in interior design will be quite the loveliest people in the office. They will be the smiley girl on the checkout, the benevolent boss of a small business making fluffy toys for babies, or the yummy mummy known for her charitable heart. I wish my tormenters were tattooed Nazis and arrogantly evil bankers but thoughtless hatred and bullying aren’t their preserve.
We are casually sleep-clicking through a Ballardian dystopia in which it has become almost obligatory to heap abuse upon each other, as if it’s a badge of honour for each side. When the comments hit 400, one friend congratulated me on the fact that I was now officially more loathed than a recent feckless dad of 28 children who spent his life drowned in Special Brew.
I’m sure the journalists who commissioned, edited, printed and paid me handsomely for my article were thrilled by the attention it got. Sadly, so was I. But I just wish that the trolls had actually read the piece.
They attacked me for not working, when it clearly says I have my own fledgling business. They told me I was an irresponsible father, which seems odd considering I’m talking about suddenly becoming a more responsible father. They poured scorn on my self-loathing, despite not reading the bit where I said I hated housework not myself. They even mocked my double-chin when in fact it was a mere trick of the light.
So it’s not just anonymous abuse that is being given free rein online, it’s that abusers no longer need to understand what they’re reading – or indeed actually read anything – before expunging their emotions, like an eager teenager with one eye on a pornographic website and the other on his jiggling hand.
As our attention spans have become shorter, our capacity for vileness has vastly increased. People unable, unwilling or embarrassed to cogently express their opinions – the vast majority, I would suggest – now have an outlet for the loathing they once felt obliged to hide.
It is the emotion all of us possess, more so even than love. But it thrives most effectively online because the digital world rewards ignorant stupidity – the more loudly expressed, the better.
How prescient that Monty Python “Argument” sketch now looks. Soon, we will have websites devoted not to informing, connecting and engaging but abusing. They won’t be disguised as community forums but will be expressly designed to encourage people to torment each other verbally, with or without punctuation. And somebody smarter than all of us will make a fortune out of it.
I’m too busy to do it myself, I’m making brownies.