Saturday, December 25, 2010

Forever Autumn

The first of a series of things wot I wrote throughout the year but never got published.

The Internet has become legit over the last few years. When I say 'legit' I actually mean that its inveigled its way into society to the point where it is now a universally recognised method of communication. I noticed a few years ago that the BBC, real advocates of the www, were reading texts, tweets, Facebook comments and stuff from their own websites. My initial reaction was this was filler for the 24 hour news service, and while that opinion hasn't really changed, I don't actually see the difference between using the 'net to communicate or writing a letter.

It doesn't change my feelings that reading viewers comments and opinions is a little pointless - despite having had my own read out on Radio5Live. The cynic in me wants to scream 'who gives a shit about what Mrs B of Halesowen has to say about the current state of [blah]'. Obviously, I'm right - no one really gives a shit, but 20 million of us still contribute in some way or another to the cacophony on the TV, radio and media.

As someone who, at least, was trained to be a journalist, it's nothing but inverted snobbery. I don't think these people who contribute are worthy of contributing, because part of me knows that whatever Mrs B has to say, she is one person and one person rarely makes a difference. Besides, Mrs B might be an extremist who believes that people using cycles on pavements should all be castrated or sterilised. She is, of course, entitled to her opinion, as am I. The Internet has led to people like Mrs B becoming more opinionated. 30 years ago, she wouldn't have rattled off a 'tweet' or an email to whatever offending group she does now; in fact, she might have been loathe to even put pen to paper - because, what good would it do?

But the legitimisation of the Internet has led to it now being a place where there are no boundaries, a place that has 'encouraged' our right of freedom of speech.

You hear, almost weekly, about some poor schmuck who has lost his or her job because of the amount of time they spend on Facebook or for tweeting or posting something derisory about their employer. People lose their jobs over the Internet's use now. Whereas we are encouraged to give our opinions on any current affair going, we face destitution if we say or infer something that could be construed as derogatory to our employer. Inflammatory comments about the government are treated like words of wisdom, vague comments about your job can see you hauled before countless disciplinary panels. It is a fine and very blurry line.

Recently, in the paper, there have been two quite believable examples of how the Internet is both a joke and a very serious business. Take, for instance, the young man from the Midlands who jokingly said he'd blow up Robin Hood airport if the bad weather prevented him from meeting the girl he'd struck a friendship up with. He was fined £1000 and will now carry a criminal record because of a love-struck comment aimed at, in the majority, the people who knew him. At the appeal, lawyers argued every facet of the case, even quoting John Betjemen's 'friendly bombs' line. The case was being decided by high court judges and they will have to balance a mixture of witty impromptu comments with the current security state the world is in. Had the man been called Mohammed Yousif or something like that, we probably wouldn't be viewing the story with the same disdain.

There is also the point where you have to ask yourself, who was reading this guy's tweet and thought it bad enough to report to the police? More important than that, how come the police and the CPS decided that this person, with no criminal record, in a good job and arguably a respected member of his own societal group, should be prosecuted. A lesson, perhaps? I don't know why, but I do know that in a period where the police force are struggling to enforce their law (and faced with massive cuts next year) and have virtually given up the fight against anti-social behaviour in many areas, this looks really bad. An easy prosecution? Not at all, because the fall out from it has left a bad taste in many mouths.

However, the other side of the coin was shown later on in the paper, when a hotelier was faced with unbelievably bad reviews from guests staying at his establishment. The reviews were so bad they have had an adverse affect on business and there's not a lot the hotelier can do about it. The bad reviews will remain on the net long after the hotel and its owners have died and bad reviews always have far more resonance than good ones. it was estimated by one journalist that a bad restaurant review in a Sunday supplement can have a short term bad effect on a business, but an on-line review can be devastating.

When I was working at the magazine, one of our young interns asked why we never got letters praising the magazine, why we only ever got letters of complaint. There is a reason for this - people are more compelled to criticise than praise and very few would put pen to paper without a negative reason. There is also a wider, professional, reason - good news doesn't sell, bad news does, and while the link might seem tenuous, the readers have learnt over the years that a complaint is more likely to get printed or responded to than a compliment.

For many years, governments have wondered how the Internet can be policed. Initially it was because of the proliferation of porn, Now every one is a critic, an expert or a voice in the vast wilderness; they are also, and I've harped on about this for years, people who can and will be pernicious, nasty, vindictive, un-supportive, outrageous and vaguely illegal. The Internet is much much bigger than the world and with the rise and rise of social networking sites it will continue to blur all the known boundaries of decency, privacy and prurience. The Internet allows most users to be something they aren't when on line. This isn't a new thing, but as more and more people use the net and see what they can use it for, there's more chance of it descending into the depths that only a handful have seen so far.

If nothing else, the next few years are going to be a real learning curve for people, as more and more organisations, prospective employers and people scrutinise your on-line behaviour, to determine whether or not you are right for them.

Since writing this, the guy who threatened to bomb Robin Hood airport lost his conviction appeal. He obviously has a 'friend' who is a really pernicious bastard, because research suggests that the people who 'shop' people like him are invariably people who are close to the offender in some way. Presumably this was done because Robin Hood man said or did something that his friend felt strongly enough about to fuck up his life. My gut instinct says this person was probably a Christian...

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