Saturday, April 04, 2009

The Poison Pen

Do you ever read those comments in "Have your say?" sections of blogs or news sites? If you did, you might end up thinking that the world was populated by spiteful, cynical, stupid bullies, some with severe mental illnesses. I'm not the only person who's noticed it. David Mitchell pointed it out in the Guardian a couple of weeks ago, noting that "if there's one thing the internet demonstrates it's that a lot of angry people can read". He also references a blog called ifyoulikeitsomuchwhydontyougolivethere which is a repository of hateful comments from the BBC News website. And Charlie Brooker in his BBC4 show Newswipe, recently commented on the outpouring of bile over the death of Jade Goody.

Brooker is clever and funny and incisive (although he is often very abusive himself). For me, the key point he makes, however, is that the majority of people who post up comments online, don't use their real name. And I think that's the crux of it.

In real life, we wouldn't dare say 1% of what we say online, because we have to "own" those beliefs or comments and live with the consequences of them in society. But online, everyone is anoymous. You can get away with saying almost anything because they are so few consequences. Prior to the internet, writing things anonymously used to be viewed as immoral - I remember reading Enid Blyton stories about anonymous letter writers, for example, who always got caught by the child-detectives in the end.

Now, though, being anonymous is seen as a good thing. Loads of people have gone on about how the internet affords all of this wonderful fluidity of identity etc. And it allows us all to take part in this enormous online debate about everything. Except the debate itself has become so degraded that it simply acts as a showcase for how nasty people can be if they are allowed to be.

The internet is still very young, and I think a crucial mistake has been made. We should not have allowed the security of anonyminity to be abused. I'm not saying everyone should be issued with a government-stamped email address which also contains a link to your face picture, address and date of birth, but sites that allow comments should force their commenters to account for their opinions by making it possible for anyone to trace those comments back to their original source. I think we would see a good 95% of the spite vanish over night, and in its place we'd find the sort of things that society is based on - people actually making some sort of effort (even if it's misplaced) to take the feelings of others into account. Because as the internet increasingly becomes what society "is", I find that I like it less and less.

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