A few hours to go until 2011, and I’m busy drawing up my list of New Year’s resolutions. A major one: to stop writing about TechCrunch commenters. After all, to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, it’s like wrestling with a pig: you both get dirty and the pig enjoys it.
Still, that leaves me just enough time – eight hours, and counting – to sneak in one last journey over to the dark side. And perhaps it’s fitting that the final salvo in my war against trolls has a happy ending. A Christmas miracle, even.
It began this past Christmas day when I wrote a short post wishing TechCrunch readers a merry Christmas. Sure enough, within a few hours, the usual rag-tag band of trolls, freaks and illiterates who skulk around in the TechCrunch commentsphere arrived. One responder jumped in to call me “A TOTAL f c k i n g RIGHT WING N U T C A S E” (caps theirs), adding “the twat doesn’t know shat about tech and worse doesn’t care for ‘PEOPLE’”. Another (now deleted for reasons that will become clear in a moment) stood out for a couple of reasons: firstly, for addressing me as “bro” and secondly for his wish that I would “die a non-journalist”.
Wishing someone to die – journalist or not – struck me as a particularly un-Christmassy wish; so un-Chrismassy in fact, that I felt driven to reply, pointing out the various misspellings in his comment and offer seasons’ greetings to TechCrunch’s “illiterate college student readership.”
And that would normally be that. Generally speaking, anonymous trolls, like cockroaches, tend to scurry away the moment you shine a light on their idiocy.
But this is where the Christmas miracle kicked in. A few hours later I received an email – via the contact form on my personal website – from the commenter in question. I’m not going to tell you exactly what he wrote, suffice it to say that he wanted to say sorry. No, really.
Moreover, he wrote to say that, prompted by my sarcastic reply, he’d been driven to read some of the things I’d written in the past about trollishness and Internet anonymity and, more generally, my struggles with drinking and trying not to be a complete and total bastard. The result of his reading had been a complete change of heart: the one-time troll felt like crap for being mean on the Internet, much like I feel bad for all the people I hurt while I was drinking.
I read the email at least half a dozen times before I could even start to think how to reply. Somehow our relationship had flipped on its head: now it was me who felt bad for being so quick to swat down his trollish comment. After all, even the most unpleasant little anonymous troll comment could have been written by a fundamentally good person who is having a bad day.
I sent my new friend a preview PDF of my new (to be published in 2011) book, partly as a way to say “apology accepted” but also to reassure him that, no matter how much of a shit he feels for wishing me dead on TechCrunch, he still has a long way to go before he can compete with me on the dickish behaviour front.
As I say, a Christmas miracle. And a reminder for everyone involved that the people we write about online are actually real people.
All of which got me thinking about my own trollish past, and reminded me that I still owe a correction – an apology even – for something I wrote almost eight years ago, back in 2003, during my very first stint writing for the Guardian. At the time I was 23 years old and so, of course, I knew everything there was to know, not just about media and technology but about the Whole Entire World. And it was with that authority that I wrote an 800 word column about how Salon.com – then a mere eight years old – was struggling to attract enough paid readers to break even. They’d spent an impressive $81 million dollars to attract a relatively modest 60,000 subscribers – $1,300 per ($30 a year) subscriber as I cockily pointed out.
How many Salon.com editors does it take to change a lightbulb? Ten. One to change the bulb and the other nine to piss $81m (£50m) up a wall. Not funny, but true.
And my mocking didn’t stop there. I went on to suggest that it was time for Salon to accept reality – that they’ve failed to prove that people want to pay for their particular brand of unremarkable journalism, and so should get out of the way and let other online publications have a chance to shine. Other online publications like the one, back in 2003, I just happened to be in the process of launching.
Even by my own 23-year-old standards, the column was screamingly disingenuous and mean spirited; spurred far more by my competitive instincts than by any honest appraisal of their prospects or standards of journalism.
“If you listen carefully you can almost hear the sound of money gurgling away. Advertisers’ money, investors’ money, subscribers’ money. Glug, glug, glug. It’s fair to say that had [Managing Editor, Scott] Rosenberg been the star of Brewster’s Millions, the film would have ended after about eight minutes.”
And so it’s appropriate then that over the next seven years, Salon enjoyed a near-constant succession of last laughs. Despite various false starts with paywalls and part-paywalls and “please help save independent journalism” pledge drives, they had their first profitable quarter in early 2005 and have kept their heads above water ever since. Not only that, but their journalism – both the quirky lifestyle stuff and their harder news reporting – has got better and stronger with every passing day. The publication reached another high point two weeks ago when Glenn Greenwald wrote a searing critique of the treatment of PFC Bradley Manning in Quantico. A week later, the United Nations announced an investigation into Manning’s treatment.
Along with Gmail, Arts and Letters Daily, the BBC and – oh, please - TechCrunch, it’s one of the five sites that I check every single day without fail. With 2011 looking sure to be the year of the iPad and ebook reader, it’s easy to see Salon.com becoming even more popular – and profitable – in the coming months.
So, yes, prompted by the Damascene conversion of one of my own former critics, I figured it’s about time I made amends for the trollish behaviour of my early-20s self. Sorry Salon, you were right and I was dramatically wrong and the landscape of online journalism is all the better for that fact.
Happy New Year everyone.