X

Create an account to continue reading.

Registered readers have access to our blogs and a limited number of magazine articles
For unlimited access to The Spectator, subscribe below

Registered readers have access to our blogs and a limited number of magazine articles

Sign in to continue

Already have an account?

What's my subscriber number?

Subscribe now from £1 a week

Online

Unlimited access to The Spectator including the full archive from 1828

Print

Weekly delivery of the magazine

App

Phone & tablet edition of the magazine

Spectator Club

Subscriber-only offers, events and discounts
 
View subscription offers

Already a subscriber?

or

Subscribe now for unlimited access

ALL FROM JUST £1 A WEEK

View subscription offers

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating an account – Your subscriber number was not recognised though. To link your subscription visit the My Account page

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

X

Login

Don't have an account? Sign up
X

Subscription expired

Your subscription has expired. Please go to My Account to renew it or view subscription offers.

X

Forgot Password

Please check your email

If the email address you entered is associated with a web account on our system, you will receive an email from us with instructions for resetting your password.

If you don't receive this email, please check your junk mail folder.

X

It's time to subscribe.

You've read all your free Spectator magazine articles for this month.

Subscribe now for unlimited access – from just £1 a week

You've read all your free Spectator magazine articles for this month.

Subscribe now for unlimited access

Online

Unlimited access to The Spectator including the full archive from 1828

Print

Weekly delivery of the magazine

App

Phone & tablet edition of the magazine

Spectator Club

Subscriber-only offers, events and discounts
X

Sign up

What's my subscriber number? Already have an account?

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating an account – Your subscriber number was not recognised though. To link your subscription visit the My Account page

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

X

Your subscriber number is the 8 digit number printed above your name on the address sheet sent with your magazine each week. If you receive it, you’ll also find your subscriber number at the top of our weekly highlights email.

Entering your subscriber number will enable full access to all magazine articles on the site.

If you cannot find your subscriber number then please contact us on customerhelp@subscriptions.spectator.co.uk or call 0330 333 0050. If you’ve only just subscribed, you may not yet have been issued with a subscriber number. In this case you can use the temporary web ID number, included in your email order confirmation.

You can create an account in the meantime and link your subscription at a later time. Simply visit the My Account page, enter your subscriber number in the relevant field and click 'submit changes'.

If you have any difficulties creating an account or logging in please take a look at our FAQs page.

Coffee House

Comment threads are closing, thankfully – but the underpants brigade have won

14 September 2016

1:35 PM

14 September 2016

1:35 PM

 ‘Oh please not more lies from the LibLabCon BLIAR propaganda machine!’

‘If the author of this article had read the documents of the Council of Chalcedon in the original Greek, then he might not throw around the word “monophysite” with such casual abandon.’

‘Only one way to stop the Caliphate capturing every village hall in this once green and pleasant land and no I don’t mean green as in Ms Caroline Lucas – Vote UKIP!’

I’ve just invented these comments, but if you’ve been anywhere near a newspaper website over the past decade they’ll sound familiar. These days, however, they’re a bit harder to find.

That’s because ‘below-the-line’ comment threads are being killed off by the media outlets that set them up. With a sigh of relief.

Malicious creeps have had their microphones turned off, mid-rant. So have countless monomaniacs who aren’t malicious but who have been sucking the life (and profits) out of the publications that host them. Clever, polite people have lost their platform, too, but I’ve yet to meet an editor who feels their pain.

Unmoderated comment threads are an idea whose time has gone. But they have left an unnerving legacy. Their mood of permanent thin-skinned irritability has rubbed off on everyone.

A decade of posting random thoughts on websites read by millions has turned previously even-tempered folk into querulous bores. They remind me of Viz magazine’s grotesque fogey Major Misunderstanding, whose blazer lapels quiver with indignation every time he thinks his opinions have been challenged. (I know the type, being one myself.)

For five years I was editor of Telegraph Blogs. Every day, from the moment we switched on our computers, we had to live with the drone of the ‘underpants brigade’, as one colleague called them.

To the casual reader, these Y-front warriors were obvious fruitcakes. But they had a sharp eye for the fragility of the journalistic ego. When a blogger confirmed their prejudices – never very difficult to do – they would smother him with plaudits. Certain writers started nipping below the line to confer with their troops; they would return with their self-esteem nicely restored but touched by madness, clutching a goodie bag of fresh conspiracy theories.


Around 2012, enter the Kippers. Comment threads on choral evensong or cancer therapies were taken over by recommendations that we deport Muslims and sink our life savings into silver.

These commenters weren’t typical party members: they belonged to its militant Y Front, made up of recent converts. Vote UKIP! Vote UKIP! Vote UKIP! (Always upper-case: they went nuts if you wrote ‘Ukip’.) There was a Tourette’s quality to their outbursts and it drove everyone mad – and, I’m convinced, cost the Kippers middle-class Tory votes that might have won them a few seats at the last election.

Meanwhile, their equivalents on the Left, the Corbyn-supporting bedsit revolutionaries, mounted a similar infiltration of the Guardian threads. Unlike the Kippers, however, their political dreams came true.

But, though few of us realised it at the time, the great open-thread experiment was coming to an end.

The Y-fronters were always boasting that they were bringing us traffic. True, but advertisers had lost interest in page views. They knew they wouldn’t quintuple their takings just because Freeborn1066 clicked five times in order to expose the Bilderbergers’ infiltration of CBeebies. Those hits were empty calories. Also, Y-front monologues drove away other visitors.

So, to cut a long story short, now the commenters have really got something to be cross about. Their online adventure playground is being padlocked. The Telegraph has closed its comments threads. The Guardian is itching to do the same.

Cue lamentations, earnest strictures and philippics of extraordinary fury, some of them even punctuated correctly. But the commenters haven’t really been defeated; rather, they have taken over – or, at least, their rhetorical style is beginning to dominate every political discussion.

Now that, in America as well as Britain, major outlets are closing their comment forums, this style has spread to social media – and even social life. Comment threads didn’t just encourage people to be tiresome: they encouraged them to be tiresomely cross.

This summer, no Facebook photo of a birthday party was more than a few pixels away from a dreary spat about Brexit or Trump. Kevin Clarke, a columnist for America magazine, has coined the term ‘posts stress disorder’ to describe the exhaustion brought on by vitriolic arguments on social media with ‘former friends and newly estranged relatives’.

The truth is that whining and finger-wagging are strangely addictive. Having developed these habits under comment thread pseudonyms, ordinary people are throwing operatic tantrums under their real names. It makes them feel good – and then bad, when they suffer a savage put-down, and then good again when they think of a suitably poisonous rejoinder. (If you’re reading this article online, you may find a few of the latter when you scroll down: The Spectator still has comment threads.)

This is all very unsettling – especially for those of us who used to be celebrated for our histrionic outbursts, and even made a living out of it.

Now we face competition from (at the very least) hundreds of thousands of amateur pundits who, having swapped everyday manners for digital ones, insist that ‘a believer is free from all traditional restraints’. That’s a quote, incidentally, from the Ranters, a sect of fanatical bores who disappeared after the English civil war. Something tells me they may be about make a comeback.

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.


Show comments
Close