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Polite comments only, please

The Independent newspaper has an announcement today about changes to its comment section:

Websites have been encouraging cowardice. They allow users to hide behind virtual anonymity to make hasty, ill-researched and often intemperate comments regardless of any consideration for personal hurt or corporate damage.

There is a certain irony here, in a newspaper accusing others of payin no attention to personal hurt or corporate damage, but I take the point. And the Indy is, generally, one of the better behaved newspapers.

So they’re switching to a system that allows readers to comment, but links it into twitter, facebook accounts, etc. the idea is to raise the level of debate. I’m not entirely sure how the system works, but it’s a laudable aim. There are few things more depressing than reading the comments under articles. (Except, often, reading the articles themselves.) And there is no doubt that anonymity is the key factor. However, is it really that difficult to invent an anonymous facebook entry I wonder? If a person’s life is so sad that they can only get a vicarious thrill out of abusing others – or stirring up abuse – I’m sure they’ll find a way around it. We wait and see.

One of the joys of comments, of course, is that it allows people to have their say. sometimes, however, even the most thoughtful people  don’t think that through. I was interested in this story about Alain de Botton, who posted a comment on the website of a critic. I can’t blame de Botton for having a crack back at the critic. (I think it was David Hare who said that ‘critics are to literature what the dog is to the lamppost’). But possibly posting the phrase ‘I will hate you till the day I die’ isn’t the wisest move. (You can see the whole exchange here.) De Botton regretted his response, but you can understand it. Critics have for too long sheltered behind the protection of their papers. Whatever we think about a piece of art, or a book, or a movie, someone has taken a lot of time over it, so it deserves some measure of respect and care on our part.* Someone cares passionately about it. Sometimes a sweeping, points-scoring dismissal, secure in the knowledge that we’re unlikely ever to meet the artist, and that nothing in the publication makes us contactable, can be as much an act of cowardice as an anonymous comment on a blog.

*Except, of course, if we’re dealing with any of the following: Mr Men books, X-Factor, High School Musical, the films of Mel Gibson, anything written by Dan Brown, the Daily Mail, Rap Music and anything by either Tracey Emin or that bloke who cut the shark in half. All of which is rubbish.