Wednesday, 1 May 2013

The Age Of Parrots, Part 3 (Or: Why You Shouldn't Read Comments Sections).

Read Part 1 and Part 2.

"I've been imitated so well I've heard people copy my mistakes."

- Jimi Hendrix

There was a recent article on the BBC website about gap year volunteers, and whether they do more harm than good. It was an interesting article and the writer, Daniela Papi, clearly put a lot of work in to providing a strong, detailed case about a topic she cared about. What I found strange about the piece though was the headline: "Is 'Gap Yah' Volunteering A Bad Thing?"*. Just in case you were confused by the title, the website helpfully added a panel to the side of the article that explained the premise of the popular 2010 sketch, including an explanation of the central jokes - so you know why you're supposed to be laughing, even if you still don't quite get it. Apparently the BBC is now that annoying friend who always interrupts stories to tell you about a new Youtube clip that you have to watch as soon as you get a chance (because, oh my god, you have to see it, it's SO funny). Nowhere else in the article is it referred to as a gap "yah", and the article itself does not mention or refer to the gap yah sketch. So why is it presented this way in the headline?

It's common knowledge that journalists do not usually write headlines to their own articles - this is left to the copy editor or layout designer - and from the content and tone of the piece in question I do not expect that Papi would have used the term "Gap Yah" in her title, had she written it herself. So what's happened is that someone has actually decided that the best way to draw readers to this considered, serious piece of writing is with a reference to to a three year old comedy sketch. Is this really necessary? Do we need to know that an article will feature a familiar punchline before we'll click on it? Will we only read things if we think they have something to do with a funny video that we've seen before?

In this series I've tried to highlight ways in which people unthinkingly copy others - we change the way we speak to take on terms that others use, we find entertainment and creative satisfaction in making facsimiles of other peoples output - and given the trend a name. But now I want to look deeper. I want to look at the effects of this.

Because I found the titling of the aforementioned article so strange, I went to the comments section to see if anyone else had pointed it out**. The top comment was from a man named Richard Gledhill, who said "The problem is with any person whom pronounces it a 'Gap Yah' it really is as simple as that. A gap year is time out to travel between life stages. A Gap Yah is a time for pretentious pillocks to spend mummy and daddies inherited wealth." Richard Gledhill is a man with strong, and sometimes controversial, views on things like third generation inheritance and the correct usage of the word "whom", and feels that we should all be aware that as long as you don't talk like people in a comedy sketch, you can do what you like. Richard Gledhill also feels that reading more than the title of an article is not necessary before commenting on it.

Similarly - and I'm sorry if it seems like I'm always attacking people who say mean things about me but it fits nicely - some cowardly dimwit who didn't leave a name commented on the first article of this series to inform me that Nazi really meant fascist and that the rules of grammar were just a viewpoint held by a few people who try to force it on everyone else. Now not only is this person clearly an idiot for thinking either of these things, but also I think it was pretty clear that the point of the piece wasn't that I was confused about the existence of a punctuation holocaust. It was - well - the parrot thing.

Now neither of these internet comments involve copying other people, but each is part of the deeper problem. Both Richard Gledhill and Nameless Twerp publicly commented on an online article without at any point referencing the main thesis of the piece. Neither took the time to consider what the author was actually trying to say; what was more important to both was sharing their own pessimistic, reactionary views. And both of them defended the use of the terms they did reference. NT attempted to widen the definitions of the individual words in "Grammar Nazi" in order to protect the phrase's right to exist. And Richard Gledhill supports the usage of the phrase "Gap Yah", because it allows him to identify people he hates. Both of them cared this deeply about a pair of phrases that only came in to existence in the last decade. And of course the original copy editor of the BBC editor promoted the phrase in the title of the piece - despite its associations having nothing to do with the article it preceded.

This is where the Age of Parrots becomes dangerous. Not just for the people mindlessly copying everything, but for the people who exist in a world full of those copies. People become so used to seeing them everywhere they look that they don't recognise anything around them. Half the world are putting old covers on new books, while other half won't open the books because they don't like the covers.

The Age of Parrots affects everyone. It represses logical thought. It drowns creativity. And it forces the simplification of everything to it's lowest, most basic form.

*It appears that, since I started writing this piece, the BBC have changed the wording in the title to now say "Gap Year". I won't speculate on what made them change this, I'm just glad they decided to. Even if it makes my article look silly. The description of the sketch is still on there.

**It says something about the state of the internet when I feel that I have to make excuses for why I would read comments on a news website. Or maybe it just says something about me. It's hard to be sure.

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