When I find myself disappointed by the tone of online comment forums my mind goes back to toilet graffiti.
I am no expert, but there was, I think, a spike in interest in researching toilet (or what Americans might call ‘restroom’) graffiti in the 1970s and 1980s. It is not difficult to see why. Graffiti research sounds quirky and it is instantly relatable to the general public.
I missed out on the golden age of toilet graffiti reporting, but the other day I went back to look at some of these past studies. The paper that interested me most was one by Bruner and Kelso (1980) on bathroom graffiti in a university in the USA. The university is not identified but the study seems to have taken place in Chicago with some of the students described as coming from ‘rural downstate Illinois’.
Bruner and Kelso (1980) discussed two well established ways of approaching the study of graffiti – or let us call it ‘on wall’ (rather than online) text.
The first was a kind of thematic content analysis. Here you choose a ‘corpus’ of text. Labels are then selected / constructed which to help to capture the meanings of these these texts. In graffiti studies these labels may include terms such as racial insults, sexual insults, racial/sexual insults, general insults, sexual humour, general humour, political, drugs, religion, morals and so on. Researchers can then apply these labels to texts, or parts of text, and draw conclusions based on the frequency with which labels are applied and associations between the content of discussion and, say, gender difference.
The second approach to research graffiti and one which Bruner and Kelso saw as mainstream, perhaps reflecting the spirit of the age, was a psychoanalytical one. This approach analysed texts in term of ‘unconscious impulses, infantile sexuality and primitive thoughts’.
Bruner and Kelso rejected both these two approaches and went with what they described as a ‘semiotic’ approach. As they put it:
restroom graffiti are communication, a silent conversation among anonymous partners. Although written in the privacy of a toilet stall, the writing of graffiti is an essentially social act that cannot be understood in terms of the expressive functions performed for an isolated individual. To write graffiti is to communicate; one never finds graffiti where they cannot be seen by others. A new person coming to a toilet stall who chooses to write a graffito must take account of what has previously been written, even in the minimal sense of choosing an appropriate location on the wall, and a message is left for those who will subsequently come to that stall. The graffiti writings build up on the walls until an anonymous janitor comes in the night to wipe it all away, and the cycle of the silent discourse begins again the following day.
They wanted to understand the purpose of graffiti and they did this by looking at power. Not surprisingly this led them first to focus on male and female communication. They felt that female graffiti was more interactive and interpersonal (they cite a supportive on-wall discussion prompted by a female student pondering whether she should sleep with her boyfriend). In contrast much male graffiti tended to be ‘individualistic, graphic and derogatory’. In fact the examples they cite are quite vile. In particular they argued that some men were using use the opportunity to communicate in a public space to assert their dominance and seek to put others in their place – in this case, ‘others’ were ‘Jews, blacks, homosexuals and women’. This had to be understood in a context of the promotion of affirmative action programmes at the time and in many ways the men were not so much putting these others in their place but questioning whether they had a legitimate place at all.
The paper interested me on different levels. First, and this is a side point, it struck me that I see very little graffiti today. The paper talks about graffiti disappearing at the end of the day – it used to hang around for much longer but now seems to disappear in many private / public spaces, such as Universities, right away. The second, and main point for me, was the obvious link with research into online texts. When we research any online activity we tend to think we are doing something completely new. However anonymous public forums are not new and we can learn from the past. In this case Bruner and Kelso help me to understand power and voice online. Let me expand.
I have spent a great deal of my research time looking at online texts, counting categories and drawing conclusions. Much of this has been looking at the rather particular context of forums for members of taught programmes and, for the most part, the kinds of discussions I have looked at are often tentative, interpersonal and thoughtful. At their best forums can stimulate ideas but they can also help you see where the writer is coming from in terms of past experience and present expectations.
Forums can often disappoint of course. For example there are considerable constraints on engagement, but in my experience students are never derogatory and, for that matter, when I have looked into it, I have not seen a great gender divide in styles of communication in mixed groups . I remain positive about the role of forums for education but very aware of the constraints.
I have been much less interested in open forums, though of course I do come across some from time to time. However, recently with a research student colleague, I became interested in comparing closed education-focused discussion with open comment forums. One story I followed concerned the BBC political correspondent Laura Kuenssberg. (For overseas readers BBC is our public broadcaster and BBC political correspondents are expected to offer a balanced analysis of events, without being servile to the main parties or unduly bland.). Discussion of her work was triggered by an article claiming that she was ‘the most divisive woman on TV’ 
Kuenssberg was also discussed in the Guardian, a liberal newspaper with an international online reach. Most of the comment forum debates in the Guardian web site are reasonably well mannered but anything associated with Jeremy Corbyn (Kuenssberg is not seen as sympathetic to Corbyn, at least by Corbyn supporters) brings out more vitriolic comments far removed from the general tone of the paper’s reporting. Some of the comments made about Laura Kuenssberg for example included:
- Well Laura Kuenssberg’s been saying “fuck Labour” for long enough. Just less swearily.
- Laura Kuenssberg is a disgrace to journalism.
- And yet the BBC still refuses to acknowledge her bias.
I wanted to compare the responses in the right wing press but got sidetracked into looking at a web site for ‘Conservative woman’ . Opinion on BBC and on Laura Kuenssberg was extreme and derogatory as well:
- Cancel your licence fee payment today.
- You do not have to pay for the paedobeeb’s poisonous and pervasive propaganda.
- Never give them any information at all.
- I don’t watch BBC news or current affairs my wife can’t stand Laura K, and it doesn’t sound like a good old British name anyway.
- In years to come, dictionaries will have the following entry: Smug – see Laura Kuenssberg
So why should this be happening? Why should public spaces, even ones occupied by special interest groups, put their case in such a derogatory manner. Why should people who are taking the trouble of making an argument have no interest in trying to win opponents around to their point of view by the force of their argument? Here my thoughts went back to Bruner and Kelso. As they suggest we can understand anonymous postings in terms of transgression at some psychoanalytic level and / or we can count the labels and say how many times this or that happened. For that matter we can understand texts as shaped by technology itself (for example the way that technology seems to trigger an instant response). But, as Bruno and Kelso explain, we can see texts as ways of exercising power – the power not so much to organise opinion in favour of something but the power to deny legitimacy to anyone you disagree with. It is about making sure others know their place and that is at root all I can say about the way some people write online or for that matter the way they write on walls.
 For a counter example see
Eve, J., & Brabazon, T. (2008). Learning to leisure? failure, flame, blame, shame, homophobia and other everyday practices in online education. The Journal of Literacy and Technology, 9(1), 36-61.
 The claim about divisiveness was made in the Telegraph, a conservative newspaper, and discussed in several publications, see for example Huffington Post:
I thought for a minute that this was a mainstream Conservative party web site but in fact it is a fringe group.
[In my original post I did not provide a reference for Bruno and Kelso. It is:
Bruner, E. And Kelso, J. (1980) Gender differences in graffiti: a semiotic perspective, Women’s Studies International Quarterly, 3, 239-252