The Quixotic Grandiloquence of the Empty Vessel

I left this comment on John Waters’s latest article, which is about how the internet is bad.

There are a couple of interesting observations made in this article by John Waters, though I won’t detain myself with what there is of a central argument. One is that writing online is different to writing in print. Another is the antagonistic quality of writing online.

Writing for a readership that does not answer back has to have its benefits. There is no-one there to tell you that you’re wrong, or treat your opinion with contempt. The text that you have helped produce does not get juxtaposed with other text that diminishes the effect of your own work, which is what happens when your work is published online on a page where other people can add their responses. I think John Waters is right to say that the latter arrangement serves to shape the way people write, both above and below the line. (But we are only really talking about news sites here. This is only a very small, if still influential, area of the wild and dangerous world of ‘online’.)

Above the line, it is more difficult to make extravagant and sweeping claims for the purposes of aesthetic effect (and also for the purposes of telling porky pies), because you know someone will pull you up on them. Below the line, there is, I think, an antagonistic quality to many of the contributions. Some of it is bad writing. There are excesses. Some people are clearly idiots. But I fail to see this as a bad thing. The opinions and analysis published on Irish newspaper sites largely emanate from elite sectors of society, and they are often written in a fug of self-importance, with a sense that everything that is being said is already self-evident. I think that deserves to be challenged. That’s why I leave comments here, anyway.

I don’t think people ought to be humiliated. However, when their writing turns into a project of quixotic self-aggrandisement, voicing grandiloquent contempt for ‘the mob’ and intending to elevate the writer to the status of the solitary hero, the only one prepared to think brave thoughts, well, they do deserve to have their bubble burst.

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