A day out in cyberspace

I COULD, I suppose, try to present you with an in-depth analysis of ‘Grand Slam Sunday’ here. I could tell you how Liverpool proved that they are not a Premier League title force, how Manchester United showed that they are, how Chelsea are not the title threat they once were, how Arsenal are reborn. But I didn’t see much of Sunday’s two big Premier League games, as I was busy staring at swear words on a computer screen.

You see, there are sports journalists who get to cover all of the big events; who spend their lives travelling between Wembley, Old Trafford, Las Vegas, Colombo and Telford (UK Championship snooker, since you ask) soaking up the atmosphere of the world’s great sporting events, interviewing the big names and writing thought-porvoking, colourful pieces that bring those events vividly to life.

Sometimes, I get to do things like that. Only last month, for example, I was at Wembley on the night Steve McClaren’s England career was washed away in a downpour. Sometimes, however, you find yourself missing sport’s big days because you’re doing something else.

And I spent ‘Grand Slam Sunday’ doing something else; namely, moderating the user comments on the sports section of the Manchester Evening News website.

For those of you who don’t spend much time on internet sports message boards, I can tell you that moderating them is a genuinely eye-opening experience. Basically, a moderator’s job is to filter out the swearing, the gratuitous offence and the libels (ie. all the best bits).

It is an alternative universe, a kind of cyberspace version of a particularly rowdy pub, where everyone is forever one false move away from coming to blows, and you’re the landlord. You have to decide which comments can appear on the site, and which must be deleted, or edited. You must then deal with the web fury of those who can’t understand why their potentially-libellous posts have not appeared online.

Most of the comments on the site come from Manchester City and Manchester United fans. Generally, they stick to their own sections of the site. Sometimes, they attempt to engage in a little online scrummaging. Sometimes, you have to break them up by stopping them from posting on each other’s pages. Sometimes, they don’t take kindly to this.

I had a pretty easy ride this time, perhaps because City and United both won this weekend, and so the potential for expletive-laden text-speak abuse was reduced. But in the build-up to the Manchester derby in August, it wasn’t so much fun. I spent the entire Thursday before the match basically trying to prevent a full-scale online flame war.

As I deleted more and more messages that day, the ire of the keyboard warriors inevitably turned on the person who kept preventing their words from seeing the light of day.

It was summed up most succinctly by the person who sent through a comment which read: “Dear moderators. Go f*** yourselves.” Although, obviously, there were no asterisks involved. I didn’t let that comment through.

Whenever I do a shift as a comment moderator, I can usually guarantee that there will be at least two libellous comments about Cristiano Ronaldo. These also get deleted.

What’s really strange, though, is having to deal with comments about yourself. I occasionally cover Manchester City for the M.E.N., and whenever one of my stories appears on the site, someone will usually make a comment suggesting, politely or otherwise, that I’m not very good at my job. For reasons only years of therapy could possibly fathom, I tend to let these comments through on to the site.

Amid the cyberfury, though, you do get some wit shining through. At one point, some of the fans posting on the site started a bizarre, surreal running joke about Bill Oddie that had absolutely no relation to the stories they were commenting on. And some of the City fans have gone to quite a lot of effort to make up genuinely funny songs in praise of Sven-Goran Eriksson.

Perhaps you can begin to see how, faced with all of this, how Liverpool v Manchester United and Arsenal v Chelsea might pale by comparison.

But if you insist… nothing decided yet… pivotal weekend in the Premier League… Chelsea not the same without Mourinho… Liverpool can’t beat their big rivals… Rafa in trouble… you’ve got to fancy United for the title now. Will that do?

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