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  • Technorati: graph / links

    The beginner’s guide to writing for Comment is Free


    by Sunny on 11th June, 2008 at 8:51 am    

    The Guardian newspaper is running a series of discussions (internal, I think) called Future of Journalism and blogging about them.

    So yesterday I asked Jess of F Word how her event went, which focused on women on the net. This is an issue because its open knowledge that women on Comment is Free get a disproportionate amount of abuse in the comments, especially if they’re writing about women related topics. Some get threats, others lewd messages and many frequently get called a man-hating lesbian for no good reason.

    Jess said the Guardian had more of a responsibility to ensure women writers didn’t get so much abuse. But it’s not just women of course, any minority group from Jews and Muslims to black people and the religious get abused a fair bit. Some spend a silly amount of time trying to spot anti-semitic comments on CIF just so they can scream “look, I told you the Guardian is anti-semitic!“, and so on. Yahya Birt won’t write for it for the same reason, and I know other Muslims also get frustrated by the crap they get every time they write something.

    But I love CIF. And its not just because I got voted blogger of the year in 2006, but also because they gave me a much bigger platform where I could write about whatever I wanted and improve my writing skills (yes, they still leave much to be desired). So I want to explain why I like writing for Comment is Free and why others are missing a trick, somewhat.

    The thing to remember about writing for CIF is that its no place like you’ve written for before. Most commentators, when writing, have an audience in mind and also make certain assumptions when writing for that audience.

    But the mistake that many CIF writers, and especially the paper’s own commentators, make is assuming that the Guardian newspaper audience is the same as the CIF audience. Its not.

    So when I write about race politics or religion on CIF, I start from the assumption that most readers are going to be somewhat hostile or won’t read it through my worldview. So I have to convince them. I have to throw away my own assumptions and accept that they will get defensive over the slightest of things. Just even celebrating the achievement of a brown person will bring accusations of racism (and what if we celebrated the achievements of white people only?). And I have to convince them in about 600-700 words.

    That makes it a tough challenge every time but I enjoy it. Contrary to popular opinion, I think most readers and commenters are quite sensible. But as with online discussions, people can very quickly make the wrong assumptions, or assume that you have an ulterior motive.

    Part of the challenge in writing for CIF is to convince readers who might not normally read those arguments. That’s why I enjoy it.

    That isn’t to say there aren’t nutjobs on there - there are. But if you can get a 70% constructive comments or approvals rate then its a job done well. And I think getting involved in the comments always helps.

    The other thing is of course that CIF should have been stringent and in-your-face with their moderation policy from day one. Now the cat is out of the bag. One just has to wrestle with the beast.

    PS - I will be on a debate next week Monday titled: Is Comment Too Free? where I’ll be making this point.



    Filed in: Blog, Media




    • billericaydicky
      If theeare any posts which are offensive then what does't CiF do what it does regularly to me and many others and just censor them. I have never been abusive to anyone but regularly have posts taken down when I have been critical of some of the great and the good. I have made provable accusations of incompetence and racial bias agains both Diane Abbott and GLA member Jennette Arnold only to have them taken down after an hour or so presumably when the ladies concerned complained.

      I know this happened to other people during the three months of the Jasper affair as posts would go up critical of him and Livingstone only to disappear shortly afterwards. The Guardians coverage was as uncritical of Livingstone as the Standards was the opposite. Perhaps you could bring this up at the debate you mentioned andwhen and where is it?
    • Letters From A Tory
      "many frequently get called a man-hating lesbian for no good reason"

      To be fair, some of the rubbish women write on COF deserves harsh criticism. Their anti-men (and in particular their anti-fathers) attitude is pretty shocking and contributes nothing to political debates IMHO.

      http://lettersfromatory.wordpress.com
    • john b
      "I have made provable accusations of incompetence and racial bias agains both Diane Abbott and GLA member Jennette Arnold"

      Unless you /provided/ proof, you exposed the Guardian to a libel case by doing so, so it's no bloody wonder they took them down.

      Ditto the Jasper and Livingstone ones - most of the ones that disappeared centred around calling them crooked, which is libellous unless you can show that the person is indeed guilty of a dishonest criminal offence.

      Not wanting to get sued over the libellous rantings of fanatics != censorship...
    • Cian
      the impression I always get from reading the comments of CIF (something I don't do very often) is that they're largely rather stupid.
    • Cian
      the impression I always get from reading the comments of CIF (something I don't do very often) is that the commentators are, typically, rather stupid.
    • Jess
      Sunny,

      I think these two statements are incompatible:

      "Just even celebrating the achievement of a brown person will bring accusations of racism (and what if we celebrated the achievements of white people only?)."

      And:

      "I think most readers and commenters are quite sensible."

      OK, if you want to hone your skills writing for that audience, fair enough.

      However, I think it is a wider question of what CiF is for, what the Guardian is for, what kind of community the Guardian would want to play host to, and what responsibility it has for shaping that community.

      At the event, Jessica Valenti made some really good points about how the community at sites like Feministing, and most feminist blogs, is fundamentally invested in it. CiF is nothing like that.
    • QuestionThat
      Could the ones who are getting called "man-hating lesbians" (Julie Bindel and Cath Elliott, mainly) be getting called that because:

      a) They wrote a whole column about how eeeeeevil men are (e.g. this one)

      and

      b) They actually are lesbians.
    • billericaydicky
      John B,

      In relation to Abbott and Arnold I gave references for what I was saying which were checkable.

      In relation to Jasper you must the only person in the country who doesn't think that he was heading up a clique of black hustlers which was robbing London blind. Brian Paddick called him exactly that " a street hustler" and he didn't sue.

      He started off his career in London renting out pavements at the Notting Hill festival using muscle provided by black pimp and drug dealer Frank Critchlow owner of the now defunct Mangrove in All Saints Road.

      Interestingly all of the six arrests in relation to the Jasper funded scams have been under money laundering legislation. Could it be true, as some of the rumours flying around in journalistic circles suggest, that the missing money was financing the purchase of Colombian marching powder?

      Oh, one of Critchlow's other sidelines was renting out guns for the settling of turf wars. He used to keep them in the basement of the Mangrove which the police had been told not raid as it might affect good race relations.

      You might like to look at the articles written by one of the editors of the Comments section of the Guardian Joseph Harker. Find the article "Are all white people racist?". Harker, being a black journalist on the Guardian, concluded that we were.

      I don't know anyone who thinks that Livingstone has stolen a single penny for himslf. He is a doctrinaire old style Trotskist political manipulator but not, I think, financially corrupt.

      If you look at the organisations that he financed in GLA and GLC days it is a different story. There are dozens of groups which have had millions poured into them which in those famous words of the great Gilligan "showed little or nothing in return". I simply keep asking as others have done and are doing "where did the money go"?

      You sound like one of those self hating white Guardian readers who declared in G2 the week before the election that they were leaving London if Boris was elected. You're probably still here though, it's not such a bad city after all, is it?
    • sonia
      that's the whole point of Comment is Free..the audience is sitting and waiting to pounce. before it became CiF i used to spend a lot of time on those G. blogs, and they used to attract precisely the sort of people who are annoyed with the idea of faceless "Guardian Readers" who are all "wishy washy liberals" or something like that. it was great fun, where else would one have met a person like 'Indian Capitalist'?! you have to be able to deal with that as a writer, it is like getting on a podium no matter what you say there will be somewhere there to rip you apart. Mind you, i often don't think there's a huge value to articles in themselves on Cif: they trigger a discussion and that is valuable, they're the usual sort of journalistic piece which don't really set anything out properly, so i guess for writers to actually want to feel value in their writing in itself, and say things and go into what they mean, its probably not an ideal platform.
    • sonia
      i have always enjoyed the furore on the G blogs, CiF is a bit wussy if you ask me, the whole moderation thing was a complete failure and shows the Guardian up for being wussy pussies.
    • sonia
      heh heh "man-hating lesbians". the guardian should protect women - what is the Guardian going to do? in case people hadn't noticed a lot of women say that sort of thing to other women. perhaps all the G commentators are housewifes wanting to slam the feminists, and are disguised as men. 'are there any wimmin here today?'..they've all come to watch the stoning..
    • sonia
      yeah CIf is like having speakers corner in a pub. someone ranting in a corner, people coming along, who have no interest in a "subject area" and argue with the speaker. it's more like "real life" i.e. if you went home and tried discussing feminist politics with your great-uncle, rather than at some event where there are like minded people, and the mullah from the mosque with a drunk man on whisky thrown in. unlikely combinations - its interesting.
    • ashik
      I think CiF loses credibility because of obsession with Israel and the Palestinian conflict. They also have a tendency of unearthing Islamists of every hue, even those nobody has heard. Giving people a voice is one thing but the Guardian is a bit out there. Hence it’s nik ‘Al-Guardian’.

      Besides, as with many Lefty papers, their circulation is not so grand. In fact it’s the worst amongst dailies. This is the real reason behind CiF and the attendant controversies found there: Internet advertising revenues.
    • Cian
      I suppose its interesting in an anthropological sense, but depressing in any other sense. You certainly won't learn anything from the commentators - the opposite properly. If its representative of the average British person, then they're illogical, anti-intellectual, statistically illiterate, have poor reading skills and are borderline racist/sexist and extremely selfish. Which may be true I guess, but I'd prefer to think that CIF simply attracts nutters.

      As proof of the poor reading skills we have QuestionThat above who comments: Could the ones who are getting called “man-hating lesbians” (Julie Bindel and Cath Elliott, mainly) be getting called that because ... They wrote a whole column about how eeeeeevil men are (e.g. this one)

      And links to an article where Julie Bindel says something rather different, unless QuestionTime believes all men are rapists, or passively supportive of those who are. Maybe he does.
    • Cian
      Ashik: Given that most of the posts on CIF are not about Israel Palestine I think describing it as obsessed is an exageration. And plenty of the bloggers on CIF are pro-Israel, including people like Engage/Euston manifesto crowd who are on the barmier end of pro-Israel politics. And CIF has a tendency to unearth all kinds of people from all over the place, of all political persuasions, most of them people that very few have heard of. Singling out Islamists says more about your own preoccupations, than those of the site's.

      I don't particularly like the paper (and loathe CIF), but your comments on the circulation are false. ITs better than that of the Independent, and you can't compare their circulation directly to that of the others because they don't do returns, or freebies, and their circulation has been holding better than most, with a younger readership.
    • sarah
      letters from a tory- after reading your comment abov, i cant believe i ever agreed with you on anything.
    • QuestionThat
      @Cian:

      Aargh. It's not exactly what she says that's important. It's the way she puts it. It's all men, male, men, men, men. In Bindel-world, everything's about some un-ending war between those of us with a Y chromosome and those without.

      If its too much trouble to make sense of my abrasive comments (I don't think much of being called evil by association), here's a one from a female commenter, Clairwil:

      "In the last four days I have had a man wash my dishes unasked, another man help me decorate unasked, a man hand me his all day bus ticket and a man help me carry a number of heavy files. So that means men are dead helpful? No.

      When I was raped the only people to show any sympathy towards me were men. Given that my rapist was considered a bit of a catch in my social set, no woman I knew would believe me. Not a single man doubted me. I wasn't entirely happy with their individual responses (too much vigilante stuff) but at least their hearts were in the right place.

      I have no doubt that the majority of violent crime is committed by men but the majority of men would no more commit a violent crime than fuck their sister.

      I know there is a good living to be made winding people up but Julie you aren't stupid, why not try writing a column that makes full use of your brain? The anti-male bigotry is such a bore and remote from how the vast majority of women live."
      (Link)

      To prevent this thread going any further off-topic, I'm going to take this over to my blog. - anyone who wants to defend Bindel's misandry further can do it there.
    • Cian
      QuestionThat: But she doesn't actually say that, does she. I can see much to criticise in what she does say and the way she says it; but you're criticising her for saying something she didn't say. The post might be needlessly provocative, but that wasn't your original criticism. You criticised her for saying she hates all men - she doesn't.

      Its this kind of thing that makes the "debates" on CIF so bonkers. Lots of angry people criticising posters for stuff they didn't say, because the commentators either can't be bothered to read properly, or are semi-literate.
    • cjcjc
      The Telegraph gets stick from you for hosting - not iviting, since anyone can post there - BNP GLA member Barnbrook. Like it or not he is an elected politician/idiot.

      While you "love" CiF which invites Neil "kill the interpreters" Clark and Azzim "I would be a suicide bomber" Tamimi.

      OK.
    • QT - But this is the point, so what if they are lesbians? Thats not a term of abuse... but the way you used it, it is. Cath, as she has repeatedly pointed out, has been married for decades and has three children.

      Bill:
      I have made provable accusations of incompetence and racial bias agains both Diane Abbott and GLA member Jennette Arnold only to have them taken down after an hour or so presumably when the ladies concerned complained.

      Well, you thought that celebrating a woman Asian mayor was somehow racist. I'm not surprised they took down your comments. My feeling is thatyou are itching to call brown people racist to make up for the inner guilt you feel for white racism.


      Jess:
      Well yes, Feministing is a community and an activism orientated community so I agree with Jessica on that.

      but I think CIF is too big to ever be a cohesive community. And plus, Feministing has a mission and an editorial direction and it makes assumptions about issues. CIF can't. Its not activism orientated, it doesn't have a specific editorial policy on anything, and there's too much of a range of opinion to be one community.

      You can have little communities within CIF, and I've already seen evidence of that.
      But the Guardian launched CIF as almost like an experiment. Now they have to evolve it. I rate them for doing it, but it can never hope to become a specific community like Feministing or even like Daily Kos.

      Not until the editors decide they're going to take specific lines on issues and be more much bullish about promoting them. Even during the Mayoral election, the site didn't have an editorial line even if most of th writers wanted to support Ken.
    • QuestionThat
      @Sunny: It was you who introduced the phrase "man-hating lesbian" to the discussion, not me. I was simply explaining why I thought it was that people would comment on these women's articles in such a way.

      I am more perturbed by Bindel than by Elliott - Elliott writes some stupid things (and gets called on it), but her writing doesn't come across as hateful in the way that Bindel's does. With Bindel, there are two possible alternatives that I am prepared to entertain:

      1. She actually hates men.
      2. She doesn't actually hate men, but writes her articles in the way that she does in order to be provocative.

      If 1. is the case, then the commenters are absolutely right to call her on her bigotry.
      If 2. is the case, then she is being, effectively, a troll - and she is being thoroughly disingenuous when she snivels about (verbal) abuse (like this) when she gets trolled back in the comments thread.

      Oh, and as for 'taking lines on issues': It sounds like you want Comment is Free to be more like Liberal Conspiracy. Isn't that what the latter is for?
    • You certainly won’t learn anything from the commentators - the opposite properly. If its representative of the average British person, then they’re illogical, anti-intellectual, statistically illiterate, have poor reading skills and are borderline racist/sexist and extremely selfish. Which may be true I guess, but I’d prefer to think that CIF simply attracts nutters.

      Mmmm... well, really constructive comments are hard to come by.. but then it doesn't mean they're all stupid. I do think they jump to conclusions too easily. cjcjc, bill, QT for example. That's the real problem.

      Sometimes the commenters are just looking to expose someone with an agenda. You just have to ignore those.
    • QuestionThat
      Well, sometimes article-writers have an agenda that needs exposing (e.g. promoting socialism).
    • Rumbold
      Heh.
    • What's wrong with promoting socialism over say promoting liberalism or promoting animal rights? Its a set of ideas. You're either convinced or you're not. Exposing is just silly.
    • think these two statements are incompatible:

      “Just even celebrating the achievement of a brown person will bring accusations of racism (and what if we celebrated the achievements of white people only?).”

      And:

      “I think most readers and commenters are quite sensible.”


      Jess, I think this is down to the nature of online discussions. There are too many paranoid people on CIF. Well, there's people like Bill and QT for a start, as above. So while its frustrating, I find it useful that sometimes even my basic assumptions get challenged. Makes my arguments stronger, I think.

      Not all the time, but its useful occasionally I think.
    • Katy Newton
      But I love CIF. And its not just because I got voted blogger of the year in 2006

      Smooth :-D

      Seriously, the bear-garden comment threads ruin CIF for me. I just lose the will to live. And it isn't just the political blogs. A friend of mine does media and TV stuff on the Guardian blogs and the vitriol to which she is subjected for the most anodyne statements is unbelievable. She once said she liked Starbucks lattes and I thought she was going to have to go into the Witness Protection programme.
    • sonia
      :-) hah Katy so true, if you admitted to that on one of those blogs you'd be in big trouble! the one that made me laugh was some bloke going on about anti-valentine day (it was quite amusing) then at the end said right im off to buy a Vista and everyone said what you tosser you should have got a Mac
    • halima
      Blogging does open up space for alternative views and debates, I like it, even if they ocassionally get crazy
    • billericaydicky
      Sunny,

      I think your last post about my supposed " inner guilt" for white racism reveals what you really think about us gora lokh, or as we say in Syhleti "shada manoosh".

      Arnold isn't the Mayor, in case you haven't noticed he is Boris Johnson. You are as bad the Guardianistas who can't disinguish smear from reality. Be careful, I have had the punch ups with the real fascists and racists and, like a lot of my generation, take being called a racist very seriously indeed.

      This isn't a joke, I was out in Southall the day Blair Peach was killed, you will be calling him racist next. There are too many keyboard warriors out there, and I am beginning to think you are one of them. Jennette Arnold is a racist, ask her.
    • Leon
      I don't bother commenting on Cif any more; I've got better things to do with my time and better places go if I want decent discussion or an actual debate.
    • Sorry, what's your point bill?
    • CPScott
      CiF is frequently a raucous place, rarely friendly, yet does provide a good environment for perfecting written explication.

      On occasion even I interact there, although I'm easily overwhelmed by the incredible absurdity of doing so.

      The technique that enables my expression on CiF, long after my death, is revealed in Exercise 7. Your Subliminal Self at the Keyboard at http://www.realitytest.com/doors ; were more to comment in a mild trance condition the place might become truly interesting.

      There are those who, owing to their limited beliefs regarding the nature of reality, assume I must be a lunatic.

      My position is that our embodiment is really quite brief; should a living self choose to explore his or her "unconscious" and, while doing so, make intimate connect with a dead self residing there, why not give that dead self expression, however imperfectly? (You have two different minds, two different personalities attempting to working in cooperation; they have different backgrounds, different vocabularies, and so on. Achieving an effective blend is an on-going task.)

      The experience is expansive, for both, while posting the results in a 21st Century interactive environment may spark a few others to experiment.

      Those who assume this is an activity suitable for asylum inmates are perfectly free to believe as they do -- they will die, like everyone, then become aware of a missed opportunity.

      Regards
    • MrBullFrog
      But the mistake that many CIF writers, and especially the paper’s own commentators, make is assuming that the Guardian newspaper audience is the same as the CIF audience. Its not

      I'm grateful that some, at least, of the writers on CIF still address their articles to Guardian readers, rather than to the noisiest commentators. Cif could have been an interesting place, instead of which, below the line, except for one or two compelling voices - one thinks of RameshN, for example - it is the preserve of those who see Guardian writers as so many Aunt Sallies, to be pelted with ordure and, once knocked from their perches, to be stomped upon. One can well understand why many of the authors do not come back to discuss things with posters who seem to believe that abuse is a form of argument.
    • shachtman
      Cian "And plenty of the bloggers on CIF are pro-Israel, including people like Engage/Euston manifesto crowd who are on the barmier end of pro-Israel politics. And CIF has a tendency to unearth all kinds of people from all over the place, of all political"

      Rubbish, Can you give examples please of the ENgage crowd who are on the barmier side of pro-Israel politics. WHat have you seen to make you think this ?
    • Andy Gill
      CiF has a pathological obsession with Israel. Not infrequently there are two articles about Israel in a single day. The vast majority of Israel pieces are negative, and many of the posters are rabidly anti-Israel. This goes beyond ordinary criticism, and well into the realms of demonization and insult - today for example, (12 June) one poster describes Israel as a cowardly little country.

      Israel is regularly singled out for attention while other countries like Sudan, Egypt, China, Zimbabwe, Iran etc. which are truly repressive regimes with dreadful human rights records get hardly a mention. Personally, I see a barely disguised anti-semitism at work here. The Guardian should hang its head in shame.
    • Israel is regularly singled out for attention while other countries like Sudan, Egypt, China, Zimbabwe, Iran etc. which are truly repressive regimes with dreadful human rights records get hardly a mention.

      Are you blind? Or read selectively? Besides, saying Zimbabwe or the others have repressive regimes is like saying the sky is blue.
    • halima
      Be careful, I have had the punch ups with the real fascists and racists and, like a lot of my generation, take being called a racist very seriously indeed.

      Sorry you had to put this out, it's a shame that people might've misunderstood your comments - and yes, few of us can claim to have been in punch ups with real fascists and racists. It takes so much more courage .
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