What do you get out of trolling?

Fresher POPPY MCLEAN ain’t too pleased with you commenters

Ballet Bridge Cambridge Chris Grayling Fresher gandalf girton journo Justice secretary lotr tab comments tiddly winks troll

WARNING: this article contains REAL-WORLD NEWS

So last week Justice Secretary Chris Grayling announced plans to quadruple the maximum prison sentence for “online abuse”. If found guilty of producing what Grayling (with almost suspicious rhetorical flair) calls digital “venom”, a “troll” could expect a jail sentence of up to two years.

It doesn’t take a degree in Linkology to clock just why this particular snippet of RealNooz caught my eye over this morning’s tragic mug of Honey Cheerios (I’m sorry, mother. It’s how I live now). But if you’re feeling particularly slow this morning (might I recommend the Cheerios?), scroll down to the bottom of the page. Have a read. Then come back.

It’s no secret that the Tab has a fairly lively family of trolls living under its angular, satirical bridge.

Girton - It's far away

Girton – It’s far away

In fact, one of the first things an untried fresher discovers of Cambridge is not the repulsive charming word ‘pidge’, the idiotic quaint layout of the Thursday week or the painfully banal side-splittingly hilarious fact that Girton may just take a little bit longer to reach than the majority of other places.

No, the eager Summer-fresher’s window into their future looks out first across the pun-dappled lawn of their Facebook group, which, in turn, leads them on a path down to the watery Tab, sparkling with (at least attempted) wit in the sunlight.

But first, naturally, they must ford the bridge. And the impact of the spiteful, vitriolic mutterings diffusing from beneath on your average fresher cannot – from my and others’ experience – be exaggerated.

Suddenly Cambridge is not soaring towers, cobbled streets and general Potterish nerdgasms – it is being torn to shreds for daring to try to entertain others with your amateur and ill-informed opinion.

This is most especially and painfully the case if you actually want to write.

Why, I ask myself, as I dance daily through the pack of Chinese tourists slowly colonising Silver Street, couldn’t I just dream of joining the all-out-tiddly-wink-LOTR-milk-chugging society like a normal abnormal adolescent?

'Tiddlywinks you say?'

‘Tiddlywinks you say?’

Why of all things do I have to want to write, to tell people I’ll never meet things they don’t care about for nothing but abusive comments and the occasional scrounged ‘like’?

Presumably, if someone were to attend a student ballet show and begin hurling insults/threats/raw cabbages at the performer just for the sake of pissing everyone off they would be requested with all due violence to leave. Why does the fact that someone is expressing themselves in writing imply to a few people that any hurtful invective is fair game?

And the suggestion that such comments ultimately improve the publication or the writer is bullshit. Generalised criticism is always pointless, and its only consequence is to scare less confident writers away from creating anything really new.

And yes, that does include altering whatever the troll slammed in the first place.

Obviously I think freedom of speech via comments is vital – or do I? If I didn’t, you wouldn’t know. Because, in reality, our superficial ‘freedom’ is curbed by the pressure to stick to very clearly defined liberal views.

This in general is probably a good thing (there we go again), but the one area which does not feel the weight of these boundaries is – you guessed it – the putrid patch under the bridge.

Bridges, the perfect Cambridge metaphor

Bridges, the perfect Cambridge metaphor

Grayling (modestly) describes his proposed amendment as “a law to combat cruelty”. It sounds old fashioned, idealistic, like hot buttered scones or British self-respect.

But experiences like my own and like that described by Elinor Lipman last week prove that, at least in the sphere of what is ultimately amateur student journalism, comments lamenting the quality of the paper in general or personally abusing the individual writer present a terrifying fortress to many an aspiring journo.

Sure, Grayling’s law won’t actually ensure a sentence for every destructive troll; it certainly won’t reach the – relatively tame – shores of The Tab.

But it does make a statement: that the internet should reflect not only that freedom of speech which we so value, but also the limitations usually placed on it by consideration and tact.

And in terms of this article, I guess I hope that I might just be understood in saying that bitchy comments shouldn’t have to be an integral part of entertainment-based student journalism.

Maybe one day an expectant fresher will scroll eagerly southwards to the comments not for amusingly-usernamed catfights, but for witty, intelligent debate.