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Comment Is Free, Sort Of

The British media was rife with such epithets last month, when on February 14, a 19-year-old called Max Journalism Research
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was going to share his "gap" year travel escapades with the Guardian's readers.
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The blog was part of the GU's Comment is Free (CiF) section, which the paper describes as "a collective
group blog, bringing together regular columnists ... with other writers and commentators representing a
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By the end of the first paragraph, readers knew that they'd be getting neither Kerouac-esque Experience With 3734 US troops killed in Iraq. Illegal in 5 states. As
seen on CNN
nor anything remotely original. It's a hackneyed story and Young Max's vapid dribblings had nothing new to

add to it.

To give you a taste of the inanity, read the following:

I fly into Mumbai today, but will move down to Goa pretty sharpish and chill there for a few days — a nice, slow

introduction hopefully laced with lots of swimming, sunbathing and partying. And then South India's pretty

much my oyster — Kerala, Madurai, Bangalore, Cochin, Mysore ... Wherever. I'm free to roam. That's the beauty

of doing it by myself.

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Practically all of my friends are dotted around the globe scouring every nook and cranny for a bit of culture and

enlightenment (but secretly hoping to run into as many full-moon parties as possible). But it seems all gappers I

know - wherever they are — will be going to Thailand in March or April, and every one I've spoken to is making

no secret of the fact that Thailand should be pretty damn decadent.

I'm not entirely sure what appeals to me about traveling. Maybe the lack of work or study? The mayhem? The

imagined company of beautiful girls ... all very good reasons to travel. And whether I'm right or not, I'm pretty

sure it'll be a world away from cowering under an umbrella at the 134 bus stop.

Clearly a) Young Max couldn't write to save his own skin, and b) his subject — that of privileged middle class
kid dodging university to go and "find himself" at a Full Moon Party in Thailand — has become a yawning

In fact, it wasn't long before some people were wishing that Max was going to literally hit the road, having
fallen (or been pushed) from a speeding tuk tuk. There were others who excused the car-crash prose
because, aw, bless him, he's only 19. Naysayers were quick to mention that this was no excuse. A user
called Jaibo listed those greenhorns who had achieved literary brilliance whilst barely out of short trousers:
Francoise Sagan, Mary Shelley, Rimbaud and even Bob Dylan were used as counter-examples, exhibits of
precocious talent, proof that age alone cannot answer for the inexcusable poverty of Max's prose. It was so
blatantly a steaming dung pile of balls it seemed like it had to be a spoof, perhaps another skewer from
arch-satirist Chris Morris.

It wasn't.

Further muddying the waters for bewildered readers was the URL ending "skins_blog." Skins is a popular
"yoof" TV show on Channel 4, more viscerally grounded in the stoned sexual throbs of adolescence than,
say, Beverly Hills 90210 or The OC.

Users were not slow in noticing that the new series of Skins started on, er, Monday, Feb. 11 — three days
prior, and began labeling the blog "viral pap."

Not only was the new series of this show was due to air the week the Guardian posted this blog entry, but
its writer — young Max — was also said to have helped script some of the shows. In later transpired that he
had helped script a ten-minute MySpace spin-off that no-one had seen.

It all began to look like another classic British case of "dodgy dossier." Why then, people wondered, had this
facile tyke been given such a prestigious platform to write this guff?

It turned out that his father, Paul Gogarty, is a freelance contributor to the Guardian and owner of a PR
company that boasts about its ability to place travel-related pieces in the mainstream media.

Head to Paul Gogarty Communications, click on Media Contact and weep:

The PGC contact book is priceless and to achieve unparalleled levels of success we use it to access the most

important journalists and travel editors, providing them with story ideas we know will work.

Our personal contact with the leading newspapers, magazines and broadcast media virtually guarantees

outstanding results.

The real humdinger comes when he claims that, "Knowing the right people, however, isn't enough to
achieve success in travel PR. It is our unique understanding of the requirements of the media that enables
PGC to develop and successfully pitch the most creative ideas."

Well, it certainly appears to have worked for Young Max.

What followed was a barrage of comments about nepotism, some classic deep-seated British class
prejudices, and other invective all hurled at the young lad and the Guardian.

The blog amassed over 900 comments within 24 hours, forcing CiF's moderators to work overtime separating
the vile from the volatile in terms of personal attacks. Plenty of abuse centered on the young punk's clearly
middle class roots, and the hackneyed idea of this privileged man-child attempting to "find himself" by
taking a "gap" year between high school and university. Many posters felt their lives were already saturated
with tales of excess from Southeast Asia c/o their uni chums. Why did they need another diary entry from a
posh kid "roughing it" in the quasi-risky Developing World for a few months, yet safe in the knowledge that
Mummy and Daddy's wallet could bail him out anytime he landed in the shit?

Besides the splenetic ad hominems, however, there were plenty of commentors beating a different drum.
What was the editor thinking? Where was the editorial guidance or subbing? How could they hang him out to
dry like that? Why was such a tired cliche let through? What novel spin was Max putting on it?

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The upshot of all this spleen-venting was that Max's father, the Travel editor who commissioned the piece
(Andy Pietrasik), and the Director of Digital Content of Guardian Unlimited (Emma Bell), all waded into the
melee to defend Max and themselves, by adding comments of their own, to defend Max and say he didn't
want to play at being a journalist anymore. No admission of error or nepotism was forthcoming.

The GU Strikes Back

A notorious controversialist Observer columnist, Rafael Behr (The Guardian's Sunday sister publication) got
the ball rolling:

It's a classic piece of "flame bait." Behr not only managed to use hysterical hyperbole — "mob rule online,"
"the first online lynching" and a vulgar parallel drawn with the kind of pillorying experienced during China's
Cultural Revolution — but also to insult the paper's readers:

Commentors bemoaned the injustice that people such as Max (ie, not them) get to write for newspapers

instead of more deserving people (eg, them).

Anyone who has spent time blogging will have noticed how people on the web coalesce into homogeneous

groups, based on age, class, tastes. Tribes form and reinforce their identity with codes and shibboleths.

It seemed like a classic smokescreen, dodging the many complaints about possible nepotism, shoddy
commissioning and shoddy editing.

The problem was certain incendiary lexemes — the lazy use of words like "mob" and "lynch," which are
slowly being denuded of their intrinsic meaning, as well as their associated aura of menace.

So what does this supposed online lynch mob consist of exactly?

Was it composed of the latest neologized demographic, Generation C? That "C," incidentally, standing for
terms as diverse as Caring, Cynical, Content and Community.

Well, no. Most of them make references to what they were doing at 19 — some serving in the army during
Gulf War I, some having made the same Asian road trip as Max before the global Gap Year industry had
turned the whole voyage of self-discovery into a tired life cliche.

This "frenzied mob" were people spanning the entire demographic spectrum, all of whom felt aggrieved by
what they perceived their paper to be doing: abandoning its meritocratic principles. Disparate souls
became united in their desire to disabuse the editors and receive an apology for the shameful way they felt
they, as readers, were being treated. In essence, they were being labeled as a baying lynch mob of cyber-
bullies for daring to complain about what looked like a disgraceful display of nepotism.

On Feb. 15, Andy Pietrasik, the Guardian's Travel Editor who commissioned the blog, then attempted to
dispel "a few myths and inaccuracies that cropped up yesterday." It was ham-fisted and inaccurate, and did
plenty of mythologizing.

"One thing that came out of yesterday's posts was that you want to hear a lot more from real people rather
than journalists, so I'm going to be putting up a lot more readers' recommendations and writing."

Next up came Emily Bell, Director of Digital Content, Guardian News and Media, who waded in via her
Technology blog.

The thesis statement of her tract lay in pointedly referencing a book by an American author and cultural
critic, Lee Siegel, entitled Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob.

She began by poking fun at the therapy Siegel might personally find in writing such a book, having been
sacked from his New Republic blog for posting anonymous messages praising himself. This he did when he
took umbrage to what posters were saying about his work. She then pigeonholed the attack as being worthy
of inclusion in a book denigrating the demise of public discourse with the Internet's rise.

"Last week, although a tirelessly cheerful advocate of the opening up of public discourse by the internet, I
found myself trying to impose some crowd control on an electronic mob."

She described how the "fun-poking" and "turned from the backpacker to the Guardian and our part in this
publication. The accusations included nepotism among other things." This mass protest was further vilified
as a "viral strike" and later, "cyber-bullying."

Finally, she wrote something sensible:

"We have moved, almost without noticing, from the age of representation to the age of participation, and
there will be a fairly bumpy ride whilst we all adjust to it. Oddly, it is the representative institutions, such

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as the press and parliament, which should stand to benefit most from the opening of discourse, but are
actually most confounded by mass participation. Denial has been a frequently adopted strategy but that
hasn't seemed to pay dividends."

She had encapsulated the Max moment neatly, whilst adroitly side-stepping what the braying mob were
actually braying about. For the most part, it wasn't dumb invective, it was dismay at The Guardian's
editorial policy.

Like-minded people were sickened by what they saw as a classic piece of favoritism, something the press
have long been deemed guilty of.

The Guardian purports to operate on classic left-leaning values and meritocratic principles regarding
contributors — as opposed to jobs for the boys and the Old Boys network.

It was left to two freelancers to remove the fast-accumulating egg from the face of the paper.

David Cox, a freelance journalist, dealt with the issues raised by the commentors head on, and was also
happy to interact with them below-the-line.

In his article, he discussed how the practitioners of mass media have enjoyed "a peculiar degree of
immunity from the complaints of those they address." This has led journalists to become "lazy, sloppy,
self-satisfied, self-indulgent, nepotistic and arrogant." However, thanks to the Internet, the audience has
finally found its voice.

"The media's audience has seized hold of the microphone. It will express itself as it will, and we shall all be
the better for it."

The blog was greeted with applause and a sigh of relief, best expressed as ‘finally!'

Another freelancer, Frank Fisher, quickly followed suit:

The crux of his piece was directed at the growing pressure from those occupying the "corridors of power"
for more civility in cyberspace, also taking in those darker elements of government trying to
"retrospectively censor" the web. His own feelings on the matter were unambiguous: "Regimenting and
civilising the internet? Fuck that."

Here he tackled the idea of censorship and moderation in places such as CiF, with regard to what he called
"the Gogarty cock-up," drawing attention how the reader's complaints had been misrepresented by the
established media:

"Cif contributor Simon Fanshawe popped up on a BBC Breakfast News report which claimed that the flaming
suffered by Gogarty — in fact, mostly directed at the Guardian — was cyberbullying. The opposing view;
that criticising poor writing and criticising apparent nepotism is a perfectly reasonable response to a blog,
didn't get a look in."

He was, to all intents and purposes, siding with the mob.

The Flame Game

Maxgate was a cutting edge cyber-tussle, pitting surf(er)s against the grand old dame herself, the fourth
estate. And how Fleet Street's hacks howled about that.

Above-the-line/below-the-line became a crucial demarcation, many believing that commentors (below-

the-line) were offering superior insights and quality than those being paid for their postings (above-the-line
and, in many cases, clearly towing-the-line).

I watched the whole sorry car-crash unfold — the collaboration, the smug self-congratulation, the spleens
popping in abusive hurricanes of html, marveling at the inventiveness on display: "sprogartygate."

In this brave new world of user generated content (UGC), it's easy to become involved in the meta-narrative
of the commentators, with their often brilliant displays of wit, cunning linguistics, and arcane knowledge.

What was remarkable about "Maxgate" was the speed with which this particular debate snowballed, and
how soon it spilled over into the public domain. Spreading like a wildfire, these militant flash-mob
reactions follow a regular punitive program: nonplussed Facebook group putting the boot in (check);
Wikipedia update on relevant term (here nepotism), to further put the boot in, with Max listed as a more
fitting example of this term than Saddam Hussein's sons (since amended).

Once, these spats would have lain buried in some remote corner of the Internet, but in our era, when the
triviality occupies more news space than current affairs, nothing goes unnoticed.

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And, when it did enter the traditional media world — BBC Breakfast News, radio shows, newspaper columns
— the various journalists simply closed ranks, and again abused their privileged platform. In sticking up for
each other and willfully ignoring the foundation of the readership's grievances, they only added fuel to the

It was the inanity of their responses, cherry-picking the reader's comments that best reflected the journo's
own "self-righteous indignation" — what, the rabble dare to question our methods?!

Indeed, it was as if the media was flaming its readers, with its ill-chosen epithets.

Back in the day, if readers had something to say about particular columnists or writers in the print edition,
they could write in. Letters addressed "Sir" still appear in The Times today, a remnant of what hacks would
no doubt say was a Golden Age of Civility, when the reader knew their place in the grand scheme of things.

Flaming, trolls and anonymous abuse aren't about to disappear thanks to the unhelpful hyperbole and
typical hysteria of Fleet Street et al. Moderators actively roam the Comment is Free threads, and any user
is free to report abuse or a comment deemed inappropriate. Of course, questions will always similarly be
asked as to who moderates the moderators.

What can be found in this very 2.0 brouhaha is perhaps the first death rattle of old media, huffing and
puffing about its lost pre-eminence as a) the first port of call when it comes to news and b) its aloof
position as a respected trade (red tops aside). The hoi polloi readership is fighting back. Citizen journalism
is but a blog away. With pretty much every print daily suffering ever-diminishing returns from hard copy
sales, The Guardian included, online content and UCG are here to stay. Can any paper now afford such
aloofness any longer?

What Next For Young Max?

Young Max has become the latest Internet myth — a demon and a legend — who has paved the way either
brilliantly (via disingenuous blogging) or in ignorance (via ingenuous blogging) to notoriety. One suspects
that the offers are already flooding into him, as he slaps on the sunscreen, for the next installment and
reaction. His father says he no longer wants a career in journalism, but as David Cox pointed out to one of
the comments below-the-line, he needs to learn to toughen up a bit if he puts himself in the pulpit:

"I don't think you can ban abusive language in the public square on the grounds that it's bullying.
Vituperation has a long tradition in English discourse and it's often proved incisive and illuminating as well
as entertaining. Sensitive souls…don't have to enter journalism, as Max chose to. Those who enjoy the
privilege of the pulpit ought to put up with the rotten tomatoes that come their way."

Forgotten in the melee was how plenty applauded Young Max, cheering him on to blog again, prove them
wrong, we're avid fans, the only way is up.

Max has maintained a steely silence, either because he lacks the cojones or nous to confront the hysteria,
or because he's too busy drinking the local moonshine on that well-traveled SE Asian road.

So from "Max, 19, hits the road" to "Max, 19, hits the skids" in one small week. A minor ripple in the
interwebs, a new web celeb soon to be a mere Digg tag in history, but with something profound to say
about the changing face of media, and how the establishment appears to embrace it half-heartedly,
unsettled by the steady erosion of the traditional lines of division — us and them.

E-mail Neil Fitzgerald at ispistole at yahoo dot com.

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