Even a child isn’t spared by the nameless internet poisoners

India Knight

Say you’re at a party. You’re introduced to someone for the first time. In the course of conversation this complete stranger says something you don’t agree with. What do you do – keep quiet? Roll your eyes and move the conversation on? Find someone else to talk to? Do you try to convey your point of view? Stamp your foot a bit? Leave the room?

Or do you tell them they’re a mentally retarded freak and cast wild aspersions on their personal life, sexual quirks, domestic set-up, the physical attractiveness of their children, meanness to animals and so on? Do you tell them they’re so sexually undesirable they could crack a mirror at 20 paces? That they’re such a repulsive wreck you wouldn’t be surprised if their wife/husband had zillions of affairs? And then do you crank it up a notch, just to make sure?

No, you’re thinking. Of course not. I’d never do that. To which I say, not so fast. What if you were anonymous? Invisible? Would you alter your behaviour? Remember, nothing terrible has happened. You haven’t just witnessed someone beat up somebody else or hurt a child. All that’s happened is that someone has said something you don’t agree with. It has annoyed you, but it is completely irrelevant to your well-being. Still no? Well, you clearly have never posted a comment on any website, then.

I am grateful to Martin Belam’s blog at currybet.net, in which he writes about a story that appeared in a newspaper last week. A 13-year-old girl had gone to school wearing a skirt that was too short. Her teacher told her she looked like a “slut” and said that skirt “does nothing for your cellulite” (Yeah, I know – nice). The newspaper that reported this story identified the child and named the school she attends. Like all newspapers, it encouraged readers to comment on articles. They did so in their dozens. Many agreed with the teacher: the girl did look “like a slut” (“and dumpy too”) and what was the world coming to?

So now you have a load of anonymous adults, fuelled by moral outrage and what they see as their own impeccable rectitude, hiding behind pseudonyms, calling a named child a slut. The child had been reduced to tears by the teacher’s initial outburst. Let’s just hope she didn’t check to see what the marvellous great British public had to say. Belam wrote to the Press Complaints Commission, quoting clause 6 of its code of conduct, namely that “young people should be free to complete their time at school without unnecessary intrusion”. It brushed Belam off because a child being called a slut by a load of adult strangers didn’t personally affect him.

Anonymous online commenting means that the public’s disinhibition is out of control in some quarters. It takes effort to write a cross letter: you have to get the paper, the pen, compose the letter, find a stamp and then a postbox – by which time you’ve calmed down and can’t necessarily be bothered. Online, your bile can be shared in seconds and you can say all the things you’d never dare to say “in real life”. Except it is real life. One “quality” newspaper’s website is filled with strange people calling other people names and deriding their opinions with a nastiness that verges on psychosis. Amusingly, the newspaper prides itself on its liberal credentials. All I can say is that it has some spectacularly foul readers.

All this became evident during the weeks following the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, where her mother’s character was demolished online: she was too pretty, she was not sad enough, she was weird and behaving weirdly, she killed Madeleine herself – she’d know how, being a doctor. The poisonous posters were, of course, anonymous (these being, someone said last week, the insects of the internet world, scuttling around under stones).

None, I imagine, would have dreamt of saying any of these things to McCann face to face; just as one assumes the people speculating online about when Jade Goody’s going to do us all a favour and die would stand outside her house to let her know their views. I doubt they’d even be comfortable expressing them if doing so involved posting a real address and having it published for all to see. Equally, the people calling such and such a celebrity “fat” or “skanky” or “diseased” might be less likely to do so if their comment involved being photographed themselves, looking gorgeous in their gorgeous homes.

Anonymity online has its uses: people who helpfully leak material in the public interest that would otherwise be suppressed obviously can’t sign their entries. The better gossip sites would grind to a halt if the insiders they rely upon were named. But the people I’m talking about neither run websites nor act in the public interest. They just delight in the ease with which they can be unspeakably vile.

They do it because no one’s going to catch them doing it and also because there is a strange perception that if you are in any way in the public eye – if you’re good at acting, say, or can carry a tune – then you somehow deserve to be abused. You can “take it”. You’ve put yourself “out there” (by being good at your job), ergo you are fair game: you have no feelings or insecurities. If the commentators are properly stupid, they will tell themselves that being financially secure and having a nice life means some hapless celeb can “take it” even more. Do these people go and abuse their bosses because they live in bigger houses and drive flashier cars? Of course not; they’d wet their pants at the idea.

I know a lot of female newspaper columnists; none can bear to look at the readers’ comments below her articles online. It’s a shame, because it would be nice to enter into debate with the non-loony element, or to have one’s views broadened, or even to have a bit of human interaction. But life’s too short to have a beautiful day ruined by the demented rantings of complete strangers – and we’re cynical hacks, not teenage schoolgirls.

People should think twice before pressing the send button. They might also bear in mind that anonymous commenting’s days are numbered, according to my more techy friends: “Open identity is the future and it’s on its way.” This means no more adults calling children sluts and that’s okay by me.

+ I wrote sniffily about Twitter a few weeks ago, saying it was needy and megalomaniacal and plain weird for any sane person to spend the day posting random thoughts onto a public site. I’d like to eat my words. I was completely wrong: Twitter is amazing.

I’m relatively new to it, but it does three things brilliantly. One, it reminds you that people, complete strangers, are basically clever, funny and nice. This may seem a small thing but it’s an important and life-affirming one, especially with the amount of anonymous bile elsewhere online: Twitter puts you in a good mood.

Two, it’s an incredibly useful resource, which is why some people even use it as an alternative to Google; aside from the fact that Twitterers are everywhere and often break news as a result, you can ask a question – where to have dinner in Minsk, whether the baby’s rash is sinister, if an exhibition is worth seeing, or whatever else you like, from politics to engineering via making noodles and the finer points of construction – and know you’ll get succinct, informed replies.

Three, it makes you feel connected in a way that is hard to describe but that I’d miss terribly if Twitter died overnight. My hippieish streak finds it beautiful to have these little insights into other people’s lives. Two weeks ago I’d have called that interest prurience. But there’s a difference. So: total U-turn. Come and say hello.