The War Against Negativism

When I first got online back in 1997, one of the big draws for me was the discovery of newsgroups and mailing lists dedicated to some of my favourite bands and musicians. After years of being quietly passionate about some of my favourite music, to discover there were spaces where people with the same passions could interact, freed of the tyranny of physical distance, was very exciting. I remember finding the Freaks mailing list, dedicated to Marillion, and spending many long hours writing emails to the list, replying to others, and talking about Marillion with other passionate fans across the globe. All this greatly enriched my existing fandom. I learnt a lot about the band’s music and activities that I hadn’t known before, and was also able to contribute to tape swaps, go to fan get-togethers, and discover a large number of new bands to listen to, many of whom I ended up really enjoying too. It was a wonderful experience.

Occasionally, though, a flame war would erupt. Someone would call someone out for something, others would intervene, and the whole thing would take on a momentum of its own. I was instrumental in starting and ending an untold number of these, culminating in a lengthy spat with a guy who wrote for an online progressive rock reviews site. He had trashed Marillion’s latest offering, Radiation. A bold, experimental album by the band’s standards, I was greatly taken with it and felt very strongly that the criticism this guy had posted was all about his own expectations, rather than any failing on the band’s part. Needless to say, he felt differently. We both took each other to pieces, and neither of us came out of it looking good. That incident taught me a great deal about online etiquette, and also about what constitutes fair and reasonable musical critique.

No matter what anyone might tell you, there’s no such thing as inherently “bad” music. Even if something is technically poor, it can carry a great deal of emotion; similarly, something that’s emotionally poor can be technically thrilling. Between these extremes lies a spectrum, and any record you might care to name is somewhere on that spectrum. Most significantly of all, everyone’s spectrum is different, because we are all different – we all have different tolerances for ‘sloppy’ playing, or highly technical, experimental work. But you can be sure of the fact that for someone, somewhere, any record you care to name is a special piece of work and something they really enjoy listening to.

As time passed, the Freaks mailing list eventually succumbed to in-fighting, which seemed to become more and more entrenched as its membership grew. Frustrated, I opened a new mailing list called The Opium Den, which was aimed at fans of the existing line-up, to try and get away from the in-fighting between the fans of the two very different frontmen. It worked – although there were still occasional skirmishes, The Opium Den was very active indeed for a period of about 6 or 7 years, with over 1,200 members at its peak. Gradually, as much online activity migrated to online forums rather than the admittedly now antiquated mailing lists, The Den fell into disuse. It’s still there, but messages are few and far between, especially more recently, as Facebook and Twitter form the bulk of people’s online interactions.

Initially, it seemed that the online forums were destined to pick up where the mailing lists left off, but the amount of in-fighting only ever seemed to get worse – so much so that the official Marillion online forum garnered quite a reputation as a gladiatorial arena where loudmouths and bullies frequently rode roughshod over the ‘average’ fan. Policing the forum took an ever-increasing amount of time. People seemed hugely intolerant of other people’s opinions – but it was more specific than that. The biggest issue was of a few people, unhappy with a particular record, or something the band had done, banging on and on about it, over and over, until people got tired of hearing about it and told them as much – which of course just made things worse.

The advent of what we understand today by the term social media – Facebook, Twitter et al – just seems to have magnified the effect. Opinions have become increasingly polarised, and it seems that everyone has decided that if they don’t like something, By God Everyone Has To Know All About It. Rather than championing the stuff they enjoy, everyone is endlessly critical about the stuff they don’t like. Rather than shouting from the rooftops about this great new record they’ve just bought, or this amazing band they’ve just discovered, there seems to be an endless tide of negativity. Worse, when people do dare to be enthusiastic about something, inevitably someone will respond to them purely to tell them how wrong they are.

How did we come to this? I don’t remember it being anything like this in those early days on the Freaks mailing list – I remember it as a generally supportive and enthusiastic group of people, who perhaps didn’t agree on everything but didn’t spend all day and all night writing to each other to tell them why they were wrong to love this song, or that album, or that band. Consequently, the atmosphere was conducive to discussion. The inevitable consequence of naysaying is that it dampens interaction: those who enjoy X get tired of being shouted down by X’s detractors, and X’s detractors, having vented and ended the discussion, move on to their next target. It’s absurdly reductive, and destroys the dialogue. The blowhards who love nothing more than shouting about how much they dislike something destroy good will, suffocate communities and frustrate those who just want a nice space to talk about something they enjoy.

In the words of the Giant from Twin Peaks, “it is happening again”. For some time now, I’ve been a member and admin for an album listening club page on Facebook. Inevitably, as the membership of the page grew, the chances of conflict occurring grew, but we’ve had surprisingly few problems. Over the past two or three years, however, it’s been hard not to notice the slow growth of a small minority of regular posters who are indulging in “thread-pissing”: hijacking an enthusiastic, positive thread about a band or album and making it very clear that they have no time for it. When taken to task, they predictably claim innocence, take a few days off from being a pain in the arse, and then get right back to it, always staying just the right side of being plainly objectionable.

Although the group remains very active indeed, it’s been increasingly wearing watching this happen, issuing a warning, seeing the thread-pisser post their contrition and then watching them do the same thing over and over and over and over again, to the same handful of targets. Several times I’ve asked myself if I really want to remain in the group, purely because it gets very dispiriting to see otherwise good-natured and fun threads hijacked time and again by people who have nothing positive to contribute to them. This sort of thing really sucks the fun out of the group. We all enjoy the music we enjoy: this kind of thread-pissing does nothing except discourage people from posting about the things they enjoy because they know full well that the Usual Suspects will jump on it and it’ll ultimately just turn into another tedious argument about when the band jumped the shark, or why the album in question that people have been enthusing about is so bloody awful that obviously you’re deranged if you enjoy it.

No-one’s saying that discussion forums like this have to be full of nothing but praise. However, there does come a point where the seemingly unending torrent of negativity becomes counter-productive. When people post to a group to tell everyone how much they dislike X, there’s no need, surely, for them to do it another thousand times, just to be sure that everyone knows how they feel. What exactly do they hope to achieve? Do they imagine that people who love X will turn around and think to themselves, “Wow, they’re right, all this time I’ve loved X and it’s nonsense, really, isn’t it? I hereby renounce X and everything to do with it, forever and ever amen!”? Or is it simply a case of having to have the last word, or to assert a greater understanding? Perhaps it’s their way of saying, “Well, you may like X, but I’ve known about it for longer than you and know the people who made it, so I’m sure you’ll ultimately realise it’s bollocks”, with a condescending virtual pat on the head for those daring to sing something’s praises against all the evidence. Maybe they just delight in having arguments with people online, since everyone they know in real life has washed their hands of them, tired of arguing the toss with them?

Whatever their reasons, this tendency to shout down positivity about the things we love is, for me, the most toxic and unpleasant thing about online interactions these days. I’m not especially thick-skinned, but I find it a lot easier to deal with actual abuse, because there’s no mistaking it; it’s blatant and obvious in its intent. But this tendency to break down the things people value in their lives is a particularly repellent activity. There’s a great deal of commentary about how important music can be to people, and how important art of all kinds is in helping to maintain our mental and/or spiritual well-being – but these thread-pissers spend the majority of their time online telling us that we’re wrong to find value in these things we enjoy so much, because they don’t find value in them.

When is it too much? When do we snap, and just think, “y’know, frankly I’d be better off if I wasn’t exposed to this constant stream of negativity all the time” and disengage from these places of discussion? I see people bailing out of using social media all the time, often because they’re just tired of the negativity. It makes me sad, because when we decide we’ve had enough and bail out, it’s a bit like turning on the taps in our bathrooms and then flying to South America. We’re leaving the faucets on, letting the tidal wave of negativity rise ever higher.

How did we get here? We can, and should, do better. Next time you catch people moaning about a record, or a book, or a band they dislike, ask them what they do like. Don’t be afraid to call people out if they insist on repeatedly posting about how much they dislike something. If you’re tired of negativity, tackle it or find a space with a healthier mindset, rather than cutting yourself off from the kind of interaction you’d like to participate in. In short, don’t let the moaners win.

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