Welcome to the web: where abusive comments come free of charge

Typing angry forum comments
Being abusive is no longer the exception online, it's the rule

Hi! How are you? Also: up yours! Screw you! Get stuffed!

Welcome to the wonderful world of web comments, where telling somebody to get bent is an acceptable way to say hello.

Engadget for one is fed up with it, and the site has turned off comments for a while until they "feel like we've shaken some of the trolls and spammers loose from the branches".

Abusive commenters aren't new, of course, any more than abusive emailers or abusive forum users are. But what's different these days is the scale of it.

Now that every conceivable media outlet is obsessed with letting people have their say, people are having their say - and just like in the real world, some of those people are crazy.

Some are smug, some are several sandwiches short of a picnic, and some are absolutely furious about absolutely everything. And thanks to the combination of anonymity and an audience, even the most mild-mannered, easy-going commenters become balls of fury whenever they go near a Submit button.

Don't get me wrong. Comments are important. Commenters can spot errors, add insight, bring in much-needed hilarity to dull subjects and create a situation where instead of being the end of the story, publication of an article is the beginning of the story. That's great.

Unwanted comments

What's not so great is when the comments come from more obsessive types, the kind of people who decide not to buy something and then spend the next year haranguing everyone who did.

Imagine if that happened in real life. You're coming out of Comet with a new microwave and some wild-eyed bloke is shouting at you. "Oi! BIG NOSE!" he yells. "SANYO? CRAP-YO! YOU SUCK!"

The reason that doesn't happen in real life is because your choice of microwave really doesn't matter to you, let alone to anybody else. The same should, but doesn't seem to, apply to your choice of mobile phone, MP3 player, laptop, desktop or videogames console.

What worries me about this is that being abusive is no longer the exception, it's the rule - and abuse breeds abuse. Engadget's comment-killing move may have been justified, but when you run pieces that slag off your readers - no matter how firmly your tongue is wedged in your cheek - then perhaps it's no surprise that some of your readers will get angry.

It's a circle. Commenters annoy you, you write something to wind up the commenters, commenters get angrier… and if things get so bad you turn off comments altogether, then people are going to get absolutely furious.

Would you like to see where this is going, see how snark and abuse is infecting not just the comments but the articles, too?

Head over to Gizmodo, where Joel Johnson calls iPad critics "snivelers" before taking some reasonable points and delivering them in the style of a furious 13-year-old. Concerns over DRM and app approvals are "spilling gallons of capitulative semen to a fatuous, dystopian cuckold wank-mare" from people who are "childish" and "noxious" and "autistic," writes Johnson.

It's appalling, and as commenter TK Warrior notes: "If this 'argument' was posted by any commenter… they would be banned in a second." But they wouldn't. That's the problem. We're so used to abuse being people's default online position that we barely even notice it any more.

Carrie Marshall

Writer, broadcaster, musician and kitchen gadget obsessive Carrie Marshall has been writing about tech since 1998, contributing sage advice and odd opinions to all kinds of magazines and websites as well as writing more than a dozen books. Her memoir, Carrie Kills A Man, is on sale now and her next book, about pop music, is out in 2025. She is the singer in Glaswegian rock band Unquiet Mind.