A friend of mine has a maxim that he lives by. It doesn't guarantee him health, wealth or blissful happiness, but it's easily remembered and it stops him from expending unnecessary emotional energy while he's sitting at a computer. Here it is: "Don't look at the bottom half of the internet." In other words, don't scroll down too far.
When the comments start, he says, stop reading – because there you'll find people expressing opinions diametrically opposed to your own in a way you may find phenomenally irritating. You don't regularly hear these views offline, because we naturally and instinctively construct our social spheres in a way that excludes people who say things we find distasteful. For example, I'm not planning on holidaying this year with anyone who unironically uses the phrase "political correctness gone mad", and they'd be equally loath to laze by a swimming pool and listen to my politically correct bleatings.
But the comments sections of popular websites bring us all together in a cacophonous melée of conflicting views; this can either be joyously provocative or deeply harrowing, depending on your mood. One thing's clear, however – it's forever changed the way we read and react to the news. Even if the idea of hundreds of people firing off half-baked reckons, thoughts and theories sends you into repeated emotional spasms, we accept this as the new reality. We no longer feel grateful to the media for allowing us to Have Our Say; we feel indignant if they don't. The stopper had been jammed in the neck of the bottle for so long that this new opportunity to vent online began in a relentless fashion and remained that way. We witnessed and participated in a brutal upturning of decades of unpublished and, in some cases, unpublishable Letters to the Editor; now we could express ourselves in a forceful fashion without prefixing it with the word "Sir", and man alive, it felt good. We could challenge the supposed wisdom of writers, or, if we felt like it, challenge those who challenge the supposed wisdom of writers. If the writers themselves turn up to the party, we can give them a direct dressing down, or bigging up.
Previously benign topics gain new traction. An article about cooking with lard will provoke furious exchanges surrounding the lightness of pastry or the exploitation of animals. Pop over to YouTube to listen to Wynton Marsalis play a Thelonious Monk tune, and you can witness people bickering over whether the piano is out of tune. But are we really this angry? You'd be forgiven for thinking so. Even the delicate nuances of face-to-face communication have the capacity to boil over into a fight in a car park; refracting heightened emotions through the more unforgiving prism of the hastily typed comment is unlikely to end with tea and biscuits. Those desperate to maintain some level of decorum might use emoticons such as :) to encourage light-hearted banter, but seasoned debaters will furiously deploy their own peculiar argot that's become unique to online commenting. "Straw man" is shouted whenever someone believes they've been misrepresented, "ad hominem" if they've been insulted.
And we've certainly developed a seemingly limitless capacity for insulting one another. That's mainly down to the anonymity or pseudonymity of the web. People can say what they want from behind the safety of an alias like "Bunglewolf" and be reasonably sure they won't suffer any real-life repercussions, so the biggest problem faced by websites keen to avoid playground bullying is getting people to take responsibility for the things they post. Such was the concern in some circles a couple of years ago that an American politician, Tim Couch, filed a bill which would have made it illegal to post an anonymous comment online (as many pointed out at the time, a hilariously unworkable proposal.)
Requiring commenters to provide an email address can lift the standard of debate up a notch, while linking commenting activity with other online presences – such as Twitter – can lift it still further; most major websites have had to adopt such measures. Facebook, which requires you to use your real name when you join, has just launched a comments plugin that's already being used by The Economist and magazine publisher IPC which effectively stops pseudonymity altogether; it'll be interesting to see whether that encourages or dissuades us from contributing. After all, some of us value our online privacy for reasons other than wanting to take random potshots at strangers.
It's a tough balance for websites to strike. Lively comments sections make for attractive online destinations, that's clear. "Comments can help drive traffic," says Kate Day, social media editor at the Daily Telegraph, "but more significantly they help build up a loyal digital audience who spend more time on the site and visit more regularly." With those visitors, of course, comes advertising revenue. But the issue of nurturing level-headed debate without alienating or infuriating your audience is a huge issue for current-affairs websites. Some, like technology site Engadget, simply shut down comments for a period to make a point. Others, like National Public Radio in the US, issue a plaintive plea. Conversely the BBC, whose Have Your Say section is one of the busiest and, it has to be said, most pilloried comments sections on the web, is in the process of migrating comments from a separate area to beneath the stories themselves, where they'll be much more visible – and perhaps a touch less hysterical. "We're not doing anything particularly revolutionary," says the BBC's social media editor, Alex Gubbay, "but I want to make the website feel more social, and it feels odd that up until now all the debate has been happening in a separate ghetto."
Matt Southall created the website spEak You're bRanes in response to Have Your Say, and what he saw as the extraordinary behaviour we exhibit when we comment online. "It seems to magnify a part of human nature that you don't see much in the real world," he says. "The sheer aggression. You see things like people pretending to be racist purely to wind people up, but to me there's a very delicate semantic distinction between anonymously pretending to be racist, and just being racist. But ultimately, the comments that make me laugh most are things like armchair generals dishing out advice to the military. The people who actually think that people are listening."
The military may not be listening, but we certainly are. Our comments help to give an instant barometer of opinion on news stories – whether it's through the comments themselves, or our thumbing-up, thumbing-down, liking or disliking of those comments. Its status as the new media battleground is underlined by the practice of "astroturfing", where comments sections are pseudonymously hijacked by those with vested interests – be it the tobacco industry or, as was recently revealed, the US Air Force. (It has reportedly been tendering for companies to provide "persona management software" to create fictitious characters that appear real, and can be used to place comments strategically across the web).
Commenting is no longer a frivolous suffix to the news; it's a part of it. It's no longer a privilege; it's a right that we've won. I'd finish by saying that it's a right we shouldn't abuse, but that's the kind of highfalutin' sign-off that'll get me a kicking in the comments section. So, alternatively, maybe let's all just be nice to each other.
Nikky Murray describes herself as 32, childless, jobless and on state benefits. "I fall out of every category that might make me interesting to politicians," she says. "The way rhetoric is stirred just now makes people think that I'm scum, simply because I had the audacity to become ill. Commenting on issues related to my life makes me feel more enfranchised; even if people aren't listening, it's good that I get the chance to say it." Murray began commenting on sites such as Gawker and Jezebel, where she considers the standard of discussion was high. "There was an attitude on Jezebel that we should be better than the rest of the internet, and now I try to take that elsewhere rather than insult people. A lot of things seem to be posted deliberately to make people froth at the mouth, but I like to calm things down." She grew up in Northern Ireland and says: "We'd go to pubs from a ridiculously young age because there was nothing else to do," she says, "and we'd sit and debate politics. You were almost always going to be sitting at a table with someone whose life was very different to yours, so I've always been comfortable with debating. And I miss that in England. I can't bear small talk about football, the weather, or Jordan – while no one will talk about AV! For me, that's where commenting steps in." [Nikky's name has been changed.]
Sample comment: "Has anyone here ever met one of these 'scroungers' in the wild? That fearsome breed who turns down jobs daily, has their utility bills paid by the State, drives a brand new car each week, owns a 96-inch plasma TV in each room of their extravagantly laid-out lair and migrates abroad on a package deal to the sun six times a year?"
Away from the internet, Paul Connolly is a management consultant. Online, he's a 47-year-old butcher from Smolensk by the name of Pavel Konnolsky. Originally created to satirise rabidly pro-Kremlin comments that appeared under articles about Russia, Konnolsky developed into a genial, slightly deluded everyman. "He writes approvingly of what's going on in the UK, but often gets the wrong end of the stick," says Connolly. "He compares Big Society-thinking with the retreat of the Russian state, and admiringly compares the leaders of the Coalition to the faceless bureaucrats who run Russia. It's intended to throw light on the fact that I think we've got a bunch of very unrepresentative people running the country at present." With Konnolsky comes a substantial back story, and a host of supporting characters. While his comments are widely linked to and praised, not everyone gets the joke. "The general pattern is that Konnolsky is indulged for a while, but following humourless complaints he ultimately gets banned. So he's something of a nomad." But Connolly is not dispirited: "I'm enraged at how little satire there is directed at the Coalition," he says. "The general acceptance of the necessity of cuts and the Government's alleged toughness on the banks should be stimulating a golden age for satire. So I hope Konnolsky's bizarre tangents and quirks make people laugh – or even just groan."
Sample comment: "Hello! Here in Smolensk butcher's shop we applaud resolution of UK Government to use military might against Libyan dictator. Logistics officials felt achieving 'no fly' zone in North African country very challenging and order 83 million spray canisters of Raid."
Rowan Davies is a longstanding contributor to Mumsnet, a website with enough kudos to have been courted by both David Cameron and Gordon Brown. She has several theories as to why the site has a reputation for balancing lively debate with civility. "It's more of a conversation than on news websites," she says. "You develop a familiarity with each other, and that changes the way you conduct yourself. I've had huge rows on Mumsnet, but if you know the personal circumstances of the person you're arguing with, the debates tend not to get vicious." Davies, as a self-confessed "typical leftie", has found herself embroiled in fierce exchanges over issues such as state provision of education, but sees the debate as vital. "For every poster on Mumsnet there are something like 100 just reading – so expressing opposing views is really important. Also, it helps you hone your argument. If you only talk to people who agree with you, your arguments never get tested. But online you quickly realise when you either need to get more facts, or even change your mind." Mumsnet's overwhelmingly female demographic is another positive factor, she says. "Of course there is bitchiness, but there are undisputed baselines on certain things. You don't have to make arguments against rank misogyny, for example, so you can bypass that and start the conversation at a higher level. And our discussions go way beyond motherhood. People who haven't been to Mumsnet might assume it's all about nappies. It most certainly isn't."
Sample comment: "I live in a village that has a large traveller site. I've never seen a single piece of bad behaviour from any of the travellers. I have seen relentless prejudice and spittle-flecked idiocy from the 'community' here, which blames the travellers for every piece of petty crime within a five-mile radius on the basis of no evidence whatsoever."
Under the pseudonym Ron Broxted, Ciaran Rehill posts regularly on The Independent and Huffington Post websites from his home just south of the Irish border. "People should have the guts to criticise people using their real names," he says, "but if you're on the left of political opinion, as I am, you have things to contend with things like the far right, so I decided to use a pseudonym. But the world's not going to end if people know my real name... I started out at the Telegraph," he says, "but too many people were having screaming matches, playing the man and not the ball, so a group of us moved to The Independent." His comments and blogs subsequently brought him a large online audience and, he believes, equal footing with many writers for the paper. "Journalists are being sidelined by bloggers," he says. "I think my opinion is as valid, if not more so, than Julie Burchill's or Howard Jacobson's. And giving a voice to the hitherto voiceless is incredibly important." Rehill's not scared of wading into topics that others might steer clear of – notably the Middle East. "My opinions tend to be middle-of-the-road," he says, "but if you say anything in favour of Israel you're a Zionist stooge, and any sympathy for the Palestinians sees you labelled a Hamas supporter – so it becomes impossible to have a nuanced debate. As that advert said a few years back, the internet is the greatest opportunity we have for the exchange of human knowledge, but also gives a voice to every crank in the world."
Sample comment: "Miliband wants to put clear blue water between himself and Blair/Brown. Hardly surprising if one wishes to rebrand ZaNuLabour, the party that brought you the greatest erosion of civil liberty in UK history (TM Ron Broxted)."
"The Daily Telegraph goes back a long way with my family; my father was deputy editor years ago, my brother used to have a column, and my grandfather worked for the paper, too." Barrister Charles Utley's comments appear across the Telegraph's site, ranging from short stories to incisive opinions on religion or the British school system, but his doses of wisdom are often juxtaposed with unhinged comments. "Under Damian Thompson's pieces, for example, there seem to be running battles between ultra-conservative Catholics and atheists," he says. "I think it's all part of the fun for them. A strange kind of fun, but they're enjoying themselves." Utley's approach to provocative commenting is to keep a cool head. "I either ignore them, or post a polite reply – which drives them round the bend. They accuse me being of being passive-aggressive," he laughs. But he believes that the advantages of comments outweigh the negatives. "I get the impression, that newspapers view many commenters as a sort of necessary evil. But it makes people feel involved, and it's rewarding for them for their opinions to be so visible." His own prominence on the site has led to him being recognised in public more than once. "The first time was by a teacher at my son's school," he says. "It was probably quite a good thing to happen, as any small tendency I may have towards insanity on that site was checked as a result!"
Sample comment: "Our problem with judges is only a temporary one. Most of the ones who matter are the products of a very difficult generation. When they have retired there is every prospect that things will improve. Charles"
Visitors flocked to David Green's cricket blog, The Reverse Sweep, during the recent Test series between England and Australia – mainly as a result of his contributions to the BBC Sport forum, 606. "At the moment I'm an underworked senior IT salesperson living in France," he says, "so I've got quite a lot of time on my hands. I read all the cricket coverage, then go on to 606 to see what people are reacting to. And if I strongly agree or disagree with what's being said, I'll wade in." Discussions surrounding the noble game are characterised by more level-headed debate than with other sports, according to Green. "Most opinions are reasonably well-informed and well-argued," he says. "People express themselves more forcefully than columnists do, which is great, but it can get personal – particularly between fans of India and Pakistan. There's rivalry between English and Australian supporters, too, but that's more good-humoured." Rumours are afoot that the BBC intends to close or repurpose 606, but Green thinks it has great value. "It's particularly good when there's a scandal breaking," he says, "it picks up on things quicker than the mainstream media." Any downsides? "Well, sport is a very emotional thing, so people will start ranting if their team is performing badly. Maybe those emotions should be allowed to die down before posting! But then again, that's what it's all about. Instant comment."
Sample comment: (on a thread from 2010) "For the first time in 24 years, England have a genuinely good chance of winning a series down under. They are better led and have the more settled and resilient side. That said, you Aussies are tough to beat on your own patch and England aren't without their own problems – the bowlers are inexperienced in Aussie conditions and several batsmen are coming off poor summers... my money is just on Strauss lifting the trophy come Sydney in January."