For a couple of years, my job involved policing the web.
Not all of it, you understand.
Just the bit named bathchronicle.co.uk – and more specifically, the bits of that site which were written by readers.
In other words, I was forced to operate below the line.
It wasn’t exactly the French Resistance, but at times I felt about as effective as Rene Artois from ‘Allo ‘Allo.
When I gave up that responsibility to a central team of moderators, I didn’t shed too many tears.
It was, in the wise words of my friend Lynne’s mum, much like plaiting fog.
And since then, my forays into life below the line have been few and far between.
One of the few sites where I do regularly scroll through the comments is Hold the Front Page.
Much of the People’s Contribution to HTFP’s content is fairly predictable.
There are frequent – and frequently justified – attacks on the senior management of regional media companies.
Many of them come from people no longer in the industry.
Which means there are also regular ripostes from serving journalists about how out of touch these onetime scribes have become.
And so the rule of ad hominem begins to take over.
There are a few givens about online comments, the best-known being Godwin’s Law – that the longer a comments thread becomes, the more likely either Hitler or the Nazis will be mentioned.
And not in a way demonstrating much of a sense of proportion.
One other certainty of life below the line is that there will be misunderstandings, misinterpretations and misreadings.
For an industry with communication at its core, this is in some ways extraordinary.
But I know it happens.
Because it happened to me this week.
I am *always* flattered _ and often bemused – when HTFP picks up on something in one of my blogs and decides to write about it.
And so it was with my last piece, about Leicester Mercury staff asking to be de-nominated from a national award in protest against the loss of some of the paper’s photographers.
Never in my wildest dreams – or rather nightmares – did I expect anyone reading the piece to interpret it as an attack on those staff. That’s the last thing it was.
But interpret it that way they did.
Or, rather, interpret it that way they did after reading Hold the Front Page’s story.
There was nothing wrong with that story, I hasten to add.
It’s just that few of the commenters on HTFP ventured beyond it. Or even read it in its entirety, I suspect.
Apparently I was aiming my comments at the wrong target. And – to add insult to insult – I was ‘fixated by meaningless baubles’ because I said I enjoyed industry awards ceremonies.
Clearly this is all very minor stuff in the below-the-line scheme of things, and clearly I should grow a pair.
But it was sobering to be reminded just how quickly and readily people can be to leap to instant and personal judgement when behind the anonymity of a keyboard.
Ironically, it came within a week of me discussing media site comments with some students, and making the point that we shouldn’t dismiss all those keyboard warriors as malevolent cowards.
Hidden in among the ‘slow news day?’, ‘why don’t you cover some real news for a change?’ and ‘lazy journalism’ can be some truths which are hard to swallow. Along with some questions we may not have thought of, and some genuine constructive criticism of our work.
I was fascinated to read a piece by a onetime Guardian moderator about his role – one that had been described as the worst in the world.
There was plenty of ammunition for that view in his piece.
But ultimately, there was also hope that online debates can work, and can shed more light than heat, if moderation works well.
And, perhaps, if journalists continue to engage, rather than leave this version of the dark web to argue bitterly amongst itself.
I have always believed in answering intelligent criticism from one’s web audience, and like to think I have changed some minds over the years, as well as countering some negativity.
So I thought long and hard about how to respond to my HTFP critics.
Then I just tried to be clever, saying: “To paraphrase Ian Hislop, if my blog was an attack on the Leicester Mercury’s staff, I’m a banana.”
I wasn’t going to look again at the comments, but I forced myself to.
Although I’ve apparently slipped on a banana skin of my own making, the thread now appears to be petering out.
One person who did read the whole blog was a journalist at the Mercury, who tweeted me to say that he hadn’t interpreted it as an attack on him and his colleagues.
That was good to hear. Hopefully he took the piece for what it was – an exhortation to the incoming editor but more importantly to Trinity Mirror to put the restoration of morale at the top of their priority list.
And that tweet was also evidence of how powerful support and positivity can be in life below the line.
One of my favourite quotes is one that has been – falsely, apparently – attributed to Edmund Burke:
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”
Whether he said it or not, he clearly wasn’t talking about the web in 1770.
But lighting a positive and supportive candle in the darkness might be something we should all try and do once in a below-the-line while.
I’m going to go on Hold the Front Page to support that nice Paul Wiltshire bloke right now.