Regular readers – there are regular readers, right? – will know that I reserve a special scorn for The Guardian’s Comment Is Free section; a comment and opinion subdirectory that collects viewpoints from across the political spectrum.
In itself, a section like this is laudable. It exposes people to new viewpoints, attitudes and lifestyles that the print version of The Guardian does not. Its strapline is ‘Comment Is Free… but facts are sacred’ – a quote from Grauniad progenitor CP Scott.
It’s a broad church, features some fascinating articles and regularly generates some vigorous debate.
However, I feel that that concept has been somewhat bastardised to create a deliberately provocative and emptily heated section of the website, where drivel like Sarah Palin’s climate change invective is published without comment.
Another recent article on video games relating to rape was similarly witless, and pulled apart by Comment Is Free regulars. And I think that’s the point.
It’s hard not to come to the conclusion that much of Comment Is Free constitutes link- and flamebait, dog whistling, tail pulling – whatever you want to call it.
It’s like the post on a forum that exists simply to irritate, the equivalent of poking a bee’s nest and running away. In web parlance it’s known as trolling.
It exists to provoke, and provoke it does. There are regularly hundreds of well-informed, well-written and well-argued comments on Comment Is Free posts, coming from many points of view.
Thousands of words of user-generated content, lots of outraged inbound links, lots of return traffic from people keeping tabs on the latest debate.
The Guardian’s site has become a slick SEO machine, as evinced by its URL keyword stuffing and habit of publishing several permutations of the same story, and perhaps a bit too good for its own good.
It’s clever, but it’s a step too far for me. I can’t believe that a lot of Comment Is Free isn’t simply designed to rile up The Guardian’s own readership, the very people who buy the newspaper, in order to generate more copy, links and hits from them.
Is this what happens to a newspaper’s content when too much thought is given to chasing traffic and the holy grail of user-generated content? Is it OK to debase and undermine your moral weight and editorial line in search of more web traffic?
Is the trade-off worth it? Crap, often dishonest, generally lazy, frequently hysterical and badly-structured arguments and articles in exchange for a few more hits, and a bit more cash?
There are other symptoms at other papers – the Indie seems to print a diet of increasingly outlandish lists, while the Torygraph recently printed this beauty, a disingenuous piece of phony conspiracy-theory outrage about Google gaming its own algorithm.
The Telegraph article is breathtaking in its dishonesty, but The Guardian is the worst – a serial offender that sticks two fingers up to its own readership every time it wittingly publishes another bad article.
I’m all for a broad church, I’m all for challenging viewpoints, and I’m all for user interaction – but it’s come to something when the newspaper is the troll.