Wednesday, June 20, 2007

How to get depressed

If you would want to lose all hope in mankind (don't know why you'd want to do that, but let's just say you would) the quickest and easiest way would probably be to spend 15 minutes reading user comments in news sites, popular blogs, online discussion forums and especially places like YouTube.

Take newspapers, for instance. Helsingin Sanomat recently started promoting their online discussion facility by posting the first comments on each topic under the piece of news in question. No worse way to start your morning than by reading those usually cynical, bitter and unintelligent comments. Luckily FireFox has a handy AdBlocker that can also filter out iFrames, and so you can disable the drivel and keep reading the news without this "user-generated content". Many of the posts visible seemed to be from the same people, probably just venting their bad feelings and as they seemingly had nothing better to do, they always caught the news first, wrote the comment and then waited for other people to react.

HS has also linked their three main newspapers together. So HS, the tabloid Ilta-Sanomat and the business newspaper Taloussanomat have links to each others' stories, as a set of headlines appear in a frame. I have been lured to Talouspaperi a couple of times, and been always very disappointed. The headlines are misleading (probably sexed up in a desperate attempt to lure readers to the struggling paper's site), the stories are badly written (full of errors, both factual and of form) and of course there are the comments, where the know-it-alls of business are demonstrating their intelligence, or lack thereof. I really hope they are there because they don't have actual jobs in business and therefore nothing else to do, otherwise we are all doomed.

The popular (technology) blogs (of which I occasionally read Engadget, TechCrunch and a couple others) of course attract a lot of comments, and filtering them has become an artform and probably a major component of running those sites. Still, some of the stuff they get is just... Well, there are clearly different species of commentators. There's one that could be termed "omni-sceptics". Even if the news is about Toyota launching a new car model, they'll reply with "Fake. The shadows in the picture don't look realistic enough, and I don't think Toyota is capable of producing cars. Not those kind of cars with four wheels anyway." Then there are the "my-head-is-so-deep-in-my-own-a**" -people, whose reaction is always "I wouldn't buy that, I can't see why anyone would, the company is doomed", regardless of the "gadget" in question, whether it is a diamond-encrusted unique mobile phone handmade for a sheikh, an experimental fuel-cell generator or an iPod.

In online forums the worst thing you can do is to display the number of messages people have sent. This turns writing into a competition for quantity, and as a result quality plummets and drivel takes over. I used to follow a football forum for a while, since I liked the relative anarchism and the humour. But perhaps I've grown too old, as it now feels just overtaken by teenaged idiots who only got the anarchism-part and not the humour. I did engage in a debate over racism there a few months back, but after finding out that seemingly most other users were a few decades behind the current discussion on cultural sensitivity, I just decided to leave. I did so reluctantly, as giving up to racists, even if they are trolls isn't really good. Also I thought that if I'd manage to convince a couple of the younger users that the word "nigger" isn't funny and it is not suitable even in the context of jokes, it would be worth it. But, as we all know, you can't beat trolls, and those who were seriously of the opinion that there wasn't a hint of racism on that forum would never change their minds no matter how well it would be argumented. And finally, after noticing that people will rather believe the short statement "that's not racism" than a longer explanation why X is racist and not acceptable, I called it a day. A quick look back shows that nothing there has changed.

Finally, sites like YouTube work because of the user community. YouTube provides a great channel for people to express themselves, get their message heard and seen, find likeminded people and be active contributors rather than just passive receivers in media. This is a fundamental change in the media landscape and not really understood by educators, legislators or politicians. But as in every community, there are those who just generate noise and are not interested in anything but disrupting the community. There are so many "if you read this you must post this to at least 5 other videos or your head will explode" -types of things going on that they drown all the other nonsense comments. Perhaps that is a good thing.

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