December 21, 2015
In his latest weekly column for the Guardian magazine, the dying Clive James – he’s closer to the edge than the rest of us, who will be dead at some time but not, we hope, yet – names one of his particularly bothersome blogosphere ‘trolls’ as Fred Perry. James makes the point that the real Fred Perry was a model human being and sportsman, unlike the pseudonymous one who gives him grief. One of the worst aspects of the internet is that it allows no-hopers access to the views of the famous. Taking issue with a celebrated person who happens to be universally objectionable and disliked is probably OK, but to do so continuously with someone whose only desire is to say something reasonable and pertinent – and whose views are taken to be such by the majority – is to display one’s riff-raff status. It’s not how one disagrees with James that’s important but the ease with which one can take issue with him as though he were at the end of a telephone. Thus flows the theory of absurd reduction: that the worldwide arena of expression afforded by the internet has reduced cyberspace to a haven for taking offence at a practical level. That’s what a ‘troll’ does. James probably wouldn’t mind a correspondent who challenged his opinions with reasoned argument. But when offence had to be taken privately it was quick to fizzle out in face-to-face discussion. Now, to be able to contradict James and people like him just for the sake of it raises the troll’s status, indeed makes him or her a troll to begin with.
Tne counter-argument, however, would blame James the blogger for setting himself up in the first place. Write a newspaper column and you used to receive only letters, some from complainants, then letters and emails; write a blog to which Tina, Dick and Mary and assorted crazies can add their comments, and you get what’s coming. I doubt if James is troubled by Fred Perry: the coward using the name simply gives his sparring partner (though I doubt James deals in exchanges) the chance to say something about blogging and internet mis-use generally. But there’s a wider, related issue. Putting yourself about on the internet, gratis and unprotected by copyright, can make the troll a thief. One shouldn’t exaggerate, but the so-called ‘global village’ is a contradiction in terms. There are millions of smaller villages in which stuff can be stolen, brought in and shared among the villagers without the victim ever knowing. Is there a temptation to place on the net only watered-down versions of original work to avoid theft and plagiarism? Or should everything be available for nothing, even the perpetual moaning of a dwarf who hears a celebrity clattering across the bridge above him and, unseen, shouts his fourpennyworth through the slats? The Guardian, or James himself, owns copyright to his Saturday column. But what about the views in his blog? Are they just troll-fodder?