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Jan 17 2010

We are the angry mob

Once again it feels like I’m accused being a member of an angry mob of twitterers. This time by Catherine Bennett in The Observer, over the censure of Rod Liddle, stimulated by his potential appointment as editor of The Independent. As far as I can tell Rod Liddle is a rather unpleasant individual both in terms of his personal treatment of those close to him and in his public writing, actually looking down the first page of his Spectator articles I would appear to agree with him approximately 10% of the time.

Catherine Bennett raised this as an issue of free speech, implying that we are attempting to remove Rod Liddle’s right to free speech and also the rights of those such as Jan Moir, whilst going easy on Islam4UK. As an articulate member of a mob, I’d like to say this is really not what I want to do. To my mind Rod Liddle, Islam4UK and the BNP should all have a right to let their views be known, I just don’t believe they have a right to express that freedom anywhere or any time. However, the corollary of this is that I believe that I also have the right to point out that what they say is stupid, unpleasant and wrong. When given a public platform the BNP and Islam4UK seem to do a pretty good job at making themselves look risible, remove that platform and you risk people imagining that they are eloquent and right  for lack of any evidence to the contrary.

The intriguing question with people like Jan Moir and Rod Liddle is that they have liberal backgrounds of a sort, they are clearly pretty smart. So when they write something that sounds illiberal, offensive and pandering to the basest of instincts are they simply being “radical for pay”? Do they really believe what they write, or do they just write what they know will go down well with their employers and their readers, happy in the knowledge that all publicity is good publicity. Writing a blog brings these questions to the fore, because it’s very obvious how frequently a post is read (or at least looked at). Should I write something worthy, but dull to most people and get a few hits or something that people are impassioned about which will get many hits and mentions?

What is it I want from complaint? In a way I want to shout that someone is wrong on an equal footing, I want access to the means of production (okay dissemination, but you have to turn a phrase when you can). In the past the right to provide public comment was a special privilege, available to the few who had a newspaper column or similar. What I have written here contains no more or less research than the Observer piece, I’d humbly suggest that my opinion is of equal value to Catherine Bennett’s. I am happy to accept that her writing is somewhat superior to mine. Is this the message for mainstream media? Ill-informed rant is no longer viable, because anyone can do that – genuine insight, research, knowledge and good writing are valuable because they are hard.

10 comments

  1. drop4three

    The middle pargraph says it all. They write for arguments sake. If readers could merely browse their paper and rant away at the content to themselves, I imagine these readers would quickly change their daily purchase.
    The writers rely on angry mobs to circulate their displeasure, generating far more publicity than the paper alone could ever achieve.
    Controversy sells, and they are as wary of our backlash as they are dependent on it.

  2. Stephen Curry

    I wonder if Bennett's article is an expression of the perplexity that journalist opinion writers are now experiencing as they feel the heat of immediate responses to their writings from Twitter and the blogosphere? You do get a sense from some journalists that they feel they are the only ones entitled to pass comment of society's doings. To be sure there are plenty of pointless and aggressive comments online but plenty also that are thoughtful and informed.

    Like yourself, I may technically be part of the 'mob' but it is a heterogenous concoction and I think it's just laziness on the part of journalists to see all commenters, twitterers etc as a bunch of farm-implement-waving ignoramuses.

  3. Stephen Moss

    This is a well expressed and interesting perspective. The gripe of the professional journalist may indeed lie in the erosion of the exclusivity they once held (as hinted at by Stephen Curry), in being the propagators of opinion and news. This privileged position has been seriously eroded by Twittering bloggers.

    Some of the blogging may be patchy in quality (I know my own is), but the insights, views and information contained in many blogs is often of significantly greater interest than the fodder of the mainstream press.

  4. SomeBeans

    Thanks for your comments!

    There is a place for good, professional journalism but I'm not seeing an economic model for it at the moment. My hope is that ill-informed rant will get pushed out in favour of better stuff, but I fear that's wishful thinking.

    As for the ongoing "not getting it" on twitter I've been experimenting with the idea of substituting any mention of the word "twitter" with "telephone" to see if the argument still holds, usually it just looks ridiculous: "Ricky Gervais: I'm not using the telephone any more!".

    In a funny way blogging has made me appreciate good journalism more, things like trying to be timely, chasing down references to the end, writing nicely are all skills to appreciate.

    The real advantage of blogging is we can write afford to write for micro-audiences.

    You may appreciate that the origin for the ill-informed rant comment comes courtesy of my old postdoc supervisor who, on receiving a flier for one of the "Current opinion in …" stable of journals, expressed a preference for "Ill-informed rant in…"!

  5. XRD1

    You know, I've been looking for just such a forum from another scientist. I believe that almost every scientist has experienced ire at one time or another…as well as the need to defend free speech. And, it seems to me, that we scientists should have the capacity and the ability to determine what makes good free speech and dumb free speech. If you would like to gather us scientists and our viewpoints, perhaps we should unite into one blog or website. Unless, of course, there is such a unified website and I haven't found it yet…
    You may contact me at http://twitter.com/georgek1029 or
    http://americanpoliticalhandbook.blogspot.com

  6. drop4three

    It's the perspective from your additional comment that speaks volumes: the blogger chasing down quotes and facts in an effort to be factually correct and timely. It may not seem that from Dropped, but on other blogs (holiday related), I've searched and researched the area, people, history before posting. It's this investigative desire that puts bloggers and twitterers at the top of the game. Yes, there are ranters, and they should be tagged as such. On the other hand there are serious and analytical minds here who should not. It is some of these people that could appreciate professional, objective columns, but it often seems like the writers pander to the former group in favour of knee-jerk reaction.

    Your micro-audience comment – do you really write to those you know will read your words, or do you write as you feel? I'm interested in the answer.

  7. SomeBeans

    @XRD1 I'm not sure this post is about being a scientist, it happens that many of the people I associate with on twitter are scientists. Free speech has a different meaning in the UK, it is not enshrined in the constitution in the way it is in the US. The great thing about the twitter/blog combination is that we don't have to organise to be in one place, we are federal states.

    @drop4three funnily enough I only started blogging because I started using twitter and everyone else was pimping their blogs and I didn't have one! In terms of audience, I started off trying to blog science in the way that anyone would read, or rather tried to blog some of the minutiae of being a scientist that no-one else bothered with. As it turns out things like this, and my posts on science policy get more audience. It's a thrill to see the hit count on bit.ly for a post, which I just don't get in my professional writing (previously articles in journals and nowadays internal reports).

  8. Nora Lumiere

    I agree with Ian about bigots and fools showing their stupidity in their statements. They shoot themselves in the foot, so we don’t have to. But as bad as bigots, are the self-righteous who bully because there’s strength in numbers. They can do as much harm as bigots do.
    Respect for free speech was the point in the words of Francois-Marie Arouet de Voltaire: "Je ne suis pas d'accord avec un mot de ce que vous dites, mais je me battrai jusqu'à la mort pour votre droit de le dire."
    Autrement dit, people should have the right to say vile things without getting lynched for it.

  9. Alice

    "I want access to the means of dissemination" – nice one!

    Ta for re-posting this. Did you read this beauty?

  10. SomeBeans

    @Alice yes, I did – a great piece!

    I do worry the tweeps live in a little bubble that scarcely interacts with the world outside and whilst we might feel there's a big noise about the shenanigans in various media, most people are un-aware. Maybe the channel out is other mainstream media – there seem to be a lot of them on twitter.

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