How to write a David Aaronovitch column

Step 1: Go ad hominem from the very start and label your opponents as being part of some mythical self-styled intellectual commentariat (while ignoring just how eminently qualified you are yourself to belong to that same cadre):

It has become an intelligentsia default position, or IDP for short, that we in Britain are – as one of my favourite intellectuals put it the other day – ?sleepwalking into a surveillance society?

Step 2: Posit a false dichotomy and put your opponent at one extreme end of it:

So would Garton Ash really rather be freer and less safe to the extent of having less chance of catching a rapist or murderer?

Step 3: RePush the boat out even more – emphasise how the bad men will get you if you don’t do what they say. Go for the heart-tugging “as a father” line if need be:

How do we measure my right not to feel discomfited by CCTV or DNA testing, against that of, say, Justine Kelly, who was 18 – one year older than my oldest daughter – when she was raped by Lloyd

Step 4: When all else fails, wring your hands and play the race card. You racists!

A database of existing offenders in particular categories also means that certain ethnic groups are far more likely to be recorded than others, and therefore are far more likely to be successfully prosecuted in future.

Ask a sub-editor to top it off by giving it the headline “Ignore the paranoid fantasists” and voila! Instant column!

Of course, everything Aaronovitch bases his argument, for a universal DNA database of everyone in this country, is disingeuous. Having your personal data in state hands doesn’t make you more secure, and I’m not just talking about your bank records and NI numbers – all it takes is one dodgy copper and you can have an innocent man hounded to death in their home by a mob. Of course, measures such as a DNA database can be enormously useful in solving individual crimes, but only when targeted correctly and with care, and as one component of an investigation. Taking DNA indiscriminately makes suspects of us all and in turn weakens further the trust the citizen holds in the state.

The central tenet of Aaronovitch’s argument – that there is dichotomy between security and privacy – is a false one, both intellectually and empirically. A strong defence of human rights and civil liberties does not make us less safe – where you would rather live, the Netherlands or North Korea? What’s oddest about this dichotomy is how those that use it are so happy to pick & choose where they are. The current government and many of its cheerleaders (such as Aaronovitch) have long insisted on a more intrusive state, whether it be via a national identity register, DNA fingerprinting of all or monitoring of our phone calls and emails, all in the name of preserving our security at no cost, while scoffing at what they regard as out-of-date ideas of “liberty” and “rights”. Yet on the other hand they support the invasion of other countries in the name of liberty, all the while making ominous comparisons to Hitler and other historical events. The result is that the deaths of thousands of civilians in a foreign land can be justified by the emergence of a nascent democracy (no matter how flawed or chaotic) yet a few high-profile criminal cases on our own shores mean suddenly principles are cleanly forgotten. A question of mere distance clouding judgement, or just simple hypocrisy?

Magazine-related moment of zen

Scientologists unable to comprehend basic mechanics

Scientologists love to spam my real-world postbox, thanks to a previous resident of my flat being a fan and subscribing to their newsletters (wanker). Hence the above which appeared today in my mail.

It disturbs me, mainly because it displays a worrying lack of knowledge of simple mechanics. The strapline beneath claims “the momentum is accelerating” – physically impossible given that it is mass that accelerates, not momentum (which as any fule know, is mass x velocity). Also since we are already at “FULL SPEED AHEAD!” and hence maximum velocity, the acceleration should be zero in any case.

Golden Age of Knowledge Indeed.

Luckily, today I also received a complimentary copy of WTF magazine, which is surely where karma meant for this nonsense to actually belong, but there must have been a bit of a mix-up:

WTF magazine

Website comments are broken. How do we fix them?

The whole Max Gogarty juggernaut rolls on, and it’s mostly the Guardian and its stablemates doing the driving. There’s this hand-wringing piece by Rafael Behr which compares it to the Cultural Revolution and fails to even consider the possibility the Guardian might have made a mistake, and a heavily biased article in The Observer, both of which fail to see the bigger picture, namely that a newspaper thought they could get away with something that went against the principles of their readership, and got caught out. Instead, the spin is one of mob rule, “hate mail” and bullying and the like.

Still, this is a recognised problem on the internet and I’m going to clarify the “UGC is better than mainstream media” tone in my last post before someone misinterprets it – not every comment on any of these pieces is a burning white-hot nugget of UGC gold, superior to anything a mainstream media outlet could ever do. A lot of the comments are fairly trite and some downright abusive. There is going to be for any comments section of any site or blog, and as doctorvee summed up in a good post last week:

Look in the comments section on any major website, and you will find loons aplenty. I used to be a big advocate of letting people comment on MSM news articles. I thought the BBC?s terrible Have Your Say was just a one-off accident due to the fact that it was among the first major attempts at allowing comments on MSM websites. Now that comments are commonplace, it is clear that it was a mistake to believe that it would enhance accountability or improve debate.

Loon commenting is such a commonplace phenomenon (obligatory link to Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory and XKCD on YouTube comments) that there are whole blogs devoted to it. But there are usually, if not always, lovely tasty grains of wheat amongst the chaff. It’s just that the system’s broken and we often can’t find them. So how to go about fixing it? Duncan says:

But that needn?t mean there should be no discussion about their stories. In its place they could ? and should ? have a system like pingbacks or a Technorati widget so that readers can see what bloggers have to say about the story. The standard of debate would surely rise.

I disagree. Blogs aren’t the only way to go about commenting on the web, Technorati is a pain in the arse to use anyway, and it’s possible to be an insightful and intelligent commenter without having the technological savvy, time or energy to have a blog. But how do we encourage better interactivity with the mainstream media without every Tom, Dick or Adolf swamping the system with idiocy.

Part of the problem is the limited definition of what “interactivity” means to MSM people. Allowing people to just “Have Your Say” (a phrase which should be not just banned but buried under a mile of concrete in my view, not least as it implicitly disregards the need to think first) is not what Web 2.0 or interactivity is about; for a community site to be interactive in a smart way it has to give users the chance to control content as well as contribute.

So what’s the answer? Sites like Digg or YouTube employ point systems to promote the best comments, and on the face of it, it has appeal. At the same time, filtering or ordering comments by how well-approved they are destroys the ability to view conversations as a thread – a good reply to an idiotic comment suddenly loses all useful context. As a result, most of these systems still keep to a semi-threaded system and set a very low barrier for entry – which is why it fails miserably on both sites.

Casting an eye over the comments sections of national newspapers, and this idea hasn’t been taken on very much. The Guardian’s Comment Is Free has no such system to rate others’ contributions, but does have a “Offensive? Unsuitable? Email us” link in red after every single post. That’s hardly encouraging an environment of considered debate, or promoting positive and constructive thinking, is it?

Here’s an idea: Do we really need to have comments as a thread, or even have them ordered in time? After all, such an architecture encourages a hothouse, an environment of one-upmanship, reactionary thinking, getting personal and taking things to a ridiculous conclusion. Going to a more blog-like format, instead of the forum format we have now, with each comment standalone and not threaded or ordered in time would discourage this. It would mean they focus on the matter at hand, rather than getting personal, making it more like the format of a traditional debate (instead of an episode of Jeremy Kyle). Ordering it by rating or vote means that (we’d hope) the better and more insightful comments get promoted.

Then again – there are flaws and I acknowledge that not for the first time in my life, I may have too much faith in human nature. While I’m hoping hope the better ones get promoted, while the pointless, vague or plain idiotic ones would not (partly because they are less well-written, but also because there usually being more of them, the votes would be split), that may be just wishful thinking on my part. This Facebook group of dickheaded cuntery is 50,000 members strong, for example – all of them clicking an “I like this!” button on an equally moronic post would be awful. All internet voting systems like this can be gamed, and there is the possibility (maybe inevitability?) of cliques being formed. As well as, of course, the risk of people deliberately clicking a terrible post not because they agree with it but because it’s hilariously idiotic.

Still, I’m only speculating, and it’s very much a case that someone needs to actually do it, and do it properly for us to find out how good it would be. It would be a welcome sight to see on MSM websites, removing threads entirely and making it less confrontational. It also has benefits for the site owners – getting the community to partially self-police itself can take the workload off moderators, and the best content can be promoted to site level and adds value there. It’s worth a shot, surely?

What do you think? Why not “have your say” in the comments below? Oh God, I can’t believe I just said that. Right, flame away.

Update Thanks to John in the comments, who points out the BBC employ such a system, although it is not the default view – stupidly, I only surveyed newspaper sites before writing this blog post. It is interesting – as John said, it does get rid of the worst, albeit to varying degrees. On some topics it works quite well on and others it doesn’t (e.g. this). It does run the risk of making some debates look very one-sided. It would also be interesting to see the number of recommendations per user – they are unlimited, something I’m uneasy with – it makes it far too easy for one person with the time to flag up everything they like. A restriction on the number of recommendations allowed a day perhaps would be a good idea.

Well-connected amateurs?

Has it been over a month since I last posted here? Shit, sorry. Anyway, today at work we were discussing the great Max Gogarty flamefest over at the Guardian (previously linklogged). In short, Max is an eminently hip and loathable character from Nathan Barley travel writer who will be blogging his gap year trip to India and Thailand for the Grauniad. A fiery storm of cynical comments followed, in which it was revealed his father is Paul Gogarty, travel writer for the Guardian (amongst others) who runs a PR firm which boasts “unbeatable contacts and skills with communications professionals”.

The comments got closed early on his first post, only for the Guardian’s editor gave a mealy-mouthed justification for hiring Max the following day. Cue further comments questioning his decision, but also this very strange one, which a colleague highlighted and came out in support of:

Surely the one thing to come out of yesterday’s posts is that ‘citizen journalism’ and ‘user-generated content’ is generally bollocks, and people much prefer things done by professionals, rather than well-connected amateurs?

To which my response was… absolute, utter bollocks and something only a total fucking idiot would agree with it, quite frankly. It’s completely the wrong way round. Proper user-generated content is not done by well-connected amateurs, it is done by poorly-connected amateurs who do not have the means to get their content into the mainstream media. Max Gogarty is a professional writer, just like his father, not an amateur – having already done stuff for Skins and other TV programmes and has now got a gig in a national newspaper’s website.

What this article proves is the exact opposite – it’s a rejection of “professional” media content, and is a fucking stellar example of how good “amateur” user-generated content can be. The entertaining and compelling content on that page – the reason so many people have read and linked to it – is all in the comments written by “amateurs”, not what the so-called professional wrote. The fact they got together and found out who he was and who his father was, and his father’s PR firm, is a nice little bit of investigative citizen journalism – something that a talentless hack like Max Gogarty is utterly incapable of doing. In this case, UGC was the clear winner, and traditional content lost out.

More of this sort of thing – see Digital Lifestyles and Metafilter – which introduced me to the wonderful phrase “What really napalms my village…”. Oh, and some golden oldies from Guardian threads past, including the Barefoot “Doctor” and Mike Read.

Update: This lucid and to the point comment is exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about.