In a media ecology defined through “interactive” behaviour – “web 2.0,” the blogging platforms now favoured by news and cultural criticism sites – a new figure has emerged from the digital abyss: the serial commenter.
This figure may come to a website bearing gifts, but more often than not it’s a scythe he or she wields, rather than a bouquet of roses.
In an analysis of my two most commented-upon articles on The Conversation – Frenzy on Fury Road: Mad Max faces a post-digital apocalypse, and ISIS propaganda and gangsta rap videos – I discovered a (slight) over-representation of negative comments. By “negative,” I am not referring to the merely critical or the comment in disagreement, but, rather, the vitriolic, the argumentum ad hominem, the assassination.
And, of course, two articles by one author hardly constitutes a sufficient data pool for any real analysis beyond the suggestive and the anecdotal.
Splitting the comments into two groups, the first made up of positive, neutral and critical comments, the second made up of vitriolic comments, I discovered that, out of a total of 75 comments, 21 different commenters made 46 comments (61%) in the positive/neutral/critical category, and 13 different commenters made 29 comments (39%) in the ad hominem/vitriolic category.
One would expect on a website such as The Conversation that most of the comments would fit into the critical bracket, but this is hardly the case.
An analysis of the total comments on The Conversation made by commenters from the first group (31,679, 68%) and the total comments made by commenters from the second group (14,937, 32%) reveals that the commenters most likely to leave resoundingly positive comments and commenters most likely to leave vitriolic comments also by far leave the largest number of comments.
The most vitriolic commenter on “ISIS propaganda and gangsta rap,” for example, has left a total of 2,704 comments on The Conversation, whereas the median number of comments for a vitriolic commenter is 1,065.
Conversely, the most positive commenter has left 6,163 comments, whereas the median number is 455.
Most of the total number of comments in each category have been made by two or three commenters – including one serial commenter with more than 6,000 comments.
The sheer frequency of comments by a few commenters, positive and negative, reveals, perhaps, a kind of addictive behaviour, a pathological inability to live in the here and now.
Discourses of “bullying” seem insufficient to explain this phenomenon. Bullying in the schoolyard or workplace almost always involves a mutual recognition between antagonist and victim, and thus is explicitly social. I am able to exercise my power over you – and guarantee, through physical presence, that you know it’s me doing it and that, therefore, you feel impotent relative to my strength.
This is why the term “cyberbullying,” as applied to trolling (or negative serial commenting) involves a slightly misplaced analogy.
Cyberbullying tends to involve anonymity – a facelessness and remote distance, the product of a networked milieu rather than a community – that is radically different from the physical and social presence determinant in traditional forms of bullying. “Cyberharassment,” or “cyberstalking,” then, are perhaps more accurate terms.
There’s also an undeniable pathos to this facelessness that isn’t as immediately present in traditional examples of bullying, evoking a genuine sense of sadness on behalf of the negative serial commenter.
In Serial Killers: Death and Life in America’s Wound Culture (1998), Mark Seltzer, Professor of English at Cornell University, describes the pathology of the serial killer in terms of a general crisis of subject formation in the modern age.
The serial killer emerges as the epitome of the modern confusion between identification and identity – an over-identification with the anonymity of the crowd that readily transforms into violent identity, serial self-affirmation through killing.
This facelessness, as discussed by Seltzer, seems to become amplified in the age of “social media” – that is, media pointing towards the lack of the social, if we are to follow Bernard Stiegler’s discussion of the double logic of media prostheses in, for example, the Technics and Time trilogy.
Serial commenting, as media theorist Geert Lovink argues in Networks Without a Cause: A Critique of Social Media (2011), tends to involve little more than the blind affirmation of self. In Web 2.0, “Rarely do we see respondents talking to each other. Lively debates are the exception […] in this age of self-representation, commenting often lacks a direct confrontation with the text or artwork. The present act of replying does not seek a one-to-one dialogue with the creator”. (52)
Rather, “What’s performed is a desperate attempt to be heard, to achieve any impact, and leave behind a mark”. (53)
Marshall McLuhan’s argument, in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964), that media extends the individual’s dominion through time and space, has been pivotal to the development of media studies as a discipline.
However, McLuhan’s presupposition of a distinct subject positioned in a critical relationship to the world – an almost Cartesian distinction between subject and world that enables the subject’s extension – is radically problematised by the conditions of the contemporary media sphere.
Contemporary media, Mark B. N. Hansen points out in Feedforward: On the Future of Twenty-First-Century Media (2015), operate at a microtemporal level, involving processes that occur outside of human cognition and perception, so that McLuhan’s analogy between human being and media no longer holds.
This is the state, epitomised through the function of algorithmic machines in financial markets, that Hansen refers to as “feedforward”.
Now, serial commenting – both positive, and negative – seems to be exacerbated by the lack of direct human agency in “feedforward” culture. Media becomes simply another environmental factor to which we must respond and adjust; in a world of “feedforward,” serial commenting seems to assume an almost immunological function, proof that one exists in a digital world in which the existential no longer has any direct currency.
How can we assert our being in a world that is not only temporally sped up, but that is also determined by machines incomprehensible to the human?
The media object that perhaps most actively engages with this field of “21st century media,” is a recent television serial about serial killers, The Following (2013-15).
The Following, produced and created by Kevin Williamson of Dawson’s Creek (1998-2003), Scream (1996) and I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) fame, is structured around the cat and mouse play between FBI agent Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon) and a cult of serial killers following prison escapee Joe Carroll (James Purefoy).
The show presents a world in which the sole (or at least, primary) social and human relationships occur between the members of the serial killer group. The soap opera elements that we expect from trashy American TV fare are primarily the provenance of the killers.
There’s a lovely paranoia about The Following’s first couple of seasons. The world seems to be mainly made up of serial killers, and, frequently, characters who appear to be “goodies” are revealed as in fact, villains, plants of Joe who have been living as “sleeper killers” for years, waiting to “debut”.
There is a distinctly “social” element to these “debuts,” which frequently occur on and through new media and new communications structures.
There is a notable shift, here, away from the depiction of anti-social behaviour as a matter of solitary bodies encoding their own traumatic histories and violent futures, towards narratives based around collective bodies of killers dispersed throughout digital networks. Both The Following, and Williamson’s other recent serial, Stalker (2014-15), feature “killer-collectives” that are avid users of social media.
The killer-collective appears, perhaps, as a response to the atomisation and ontological bifurcation that defines digital-social culture and life, with expressions of collective subjectivity necessarily mediated through violence.
Within the worlds of The Following and Stalker, collective pleasure – the affirmation of a pre-mediated version of the “social” (if such an idyllic thing exists) – is galvanised solely through brutal acts of violence.
Both The Following and Stalker thus offer a “return of the repressed” of the digital in the form of killing as banal socialisation. The continual revelation of more and more serial killers (or stalkers) existing within every system and structure is, of course, ridiculous – and yet, in the age of “feedforward” and the annihilation of human control over machines, this paranoia is perhaps merely displaced.
It’s almost as though the alienation embedded in the concept of the network (as opposed to community) has come to define the human in its entirety, so any attempt to return to some kind of “authentic,” pre-mediated social interaction is seen as by default threatening.
The serial killer, in the age of the powerlessness of the human in the face of “feedforward” media, is no longer the exception that is the rule, but, simply, the networked inhabitant of the digital city. In an age of endlessly looping and circulating collections of capital and affect – in other words, in the neoliberal age – we are all, Williamson seems to be saying, serial killers.
Quite a few of us are, in any case, serial commenters.