Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Rock and troll

Am I the only middle-class London mother to have never been on Mumsnet? I was tempted to take a look around the time of the General Election, when the talk was all about the party leaders' favourite biscuits. I wanted to know how such stuff gets to be news. I understand why the politicians did it (they were courting the female floating vote). But why have the media suddenly decided that Mums are important, powerful, taste-makers, arbiters of justice and imbued with some sort of special every-woman wisdom?

I might find the answer to these questions if I just went and had a look at the website, but I really don't want to. I've dipped my toe in the online forum world over the past year and, with a few notable exceptions, I've pulled my toe right back out again.

Here are the exceptions: I use my local forums to get dull but essential information (roadworks, train cancellations, local campaigns). I am a member of a writing forum that is supportive, engaging and informative, and blessedly troll-free. And that's about it. On the local forums, there are places for people to discuss 'wider issues'. It hasn't taken me long to realise that I'm not really interested in the opinions of people I don't know, much less getting into an argument with them. And it almost always does degenerate into an argument. There is an inverse proportion between the length of a discussion thread and the quality of its content. Once a general discussion has reached its second or third page, I can almost guarantee that the conversation will have boiled down to 'You are a racist.' 'No, you are.' 'No, you are.' Ultimately, it all: Me, me me!

The thing is, no matter how reasonable or even-handed you try to be, no one is going to change their opinions because of what you write on a forum. And no-one actually cares what you think, they just want to say what they think (and I'm as guilty of that as anyone, see above). And whatever you say can be twisted in any direction by people who are Professional Offence Takers.

Of course, I didn't know this at first. I went looking for the message board of a national radio station because I had heard something on the radio I wanted to know more about. I thought this might be a place where I would find like-minded people. I posted a few comments. Someone misinterpreted something I said. I tried to clarify. I was called uncultured and uneducated. I sighed and bowed out. Every now and then I look in on that message board. The same handful of people (maybe ten or fifteen regular contributors, no more) are still going at it, staggering around the ring, punch-drunk but unwilling to give up their stated (and indeed mis-stated) positions. This a radio station that averages ten million listeners, but with a message board dominated by a tiny number of people. Don't get me wrong, many people post perfectly sensible things on that board, but the common sense is drowned out by the baying and braying of the moaners and trolls.

I have a feeling that the general message board / forum will die a natural death as media outlets become more and more tailored to the individual. For now, though, I'm steering clear of Mumsnet. I parent the way I parent, and I'm not about to tell anyone else how to do it. And I'm a little scared I'll find out that I've been doing it all wrong. Ignorance is bliss (at least until the kids are all grown up and can sue me for the cost of their therapy).

(Note: When I do post on forums, I do it under my real name. It helps me think before I flame, and it means that anyone who has seen me on a forum can also find me here slagging off the forums. Oh well.)

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