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I'm fine with facing critics - as long as they are identifiable

PUBLISHED: 15:29 14 March 2017

Anonymous criticism has become easier in the age of social media. Picture: Stokpic/Pexels/Ed Gregory

Anonymous criticism has become easier in the age of social media. Picture: Stokpic/Pexels/Ed Gregory

Stokpic/Pexels/Ed Gregory

I've been writing these columns nearly two years now. It still brings a tiny flush of excitement when I see my name in print and, as with anything, the more you do it, the better you get. At least, that's what I've always thought.

But last month’s column, I’m reliably informed, wasn’t up to scratch. An avid reader of the Evening News – we’ll call him Nigel – made a point of mentioning that it was significantly below par.

But what was surprising is that Nigel saw fit to mention his disappointment in person. Most people, I ventured to suggest, would pay a compliment where they see fit, but remain silent if they’re unimpressed. Nigel, in his unflinching face-to-face honesty, is unusual.

It’s not that we, as a society, are afraid of voicing our opinions: far from it, in fact. If anything, we are encouraged to judge, to comment and to disparage at every turn.

Even seemingly innocuous subjects as pottery, sewing and cake-baking can’t avoid the Great Opinion Deliver-Off; and if that’s not enough, we’re given the opportunity, via the medium of shows such as Gogglebox, to form opinions on the opinions of others as they watch the opinions of others (did you follow that?). In my opinion, that’s stretching the whole concept a little far.

For the most, this is all harmless enough, but it’s the ways in which these opinions are delivered which sticks in my craw. More than ever, now, we have the facility to say or write what we want, without facing up to the consequences. It’s the anonymity of online commentary, especially, which makes me uneasy.

Online platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are the obvious forums for this; they allow instant judgements to be made on anything from a person’s clothes to their singing prowess, but most newspapers and websites which circulate articles, pictures or videos have a Comments area, where opinions can be voiced beneath a faceless pseudonym without fear of repercussion. But it’s not the Nigels that lurk beneath this type of commentary. The owners of these pseudonyms don’t have names. They are simply known as trolls.

So what’s the difference between a Nigel and a troll? It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, but there’s nothing funny about the fact that anyone can set up a meaningless Twitter handle or an unidentifiable online persona and write truly hateful comments about anything they choose.

You’ve got to be tough to be a Nigel. You’ve got to be prepared for the fact that some might not like the honest delivery of your opinion

There are those, too, who take it to the extreme, putting forward unpopular opinions in public at every opportunity; figures who are either incredibly thick-skinned – step forwards, Piers Morgan – or trying to be controversial for the publicity and notoriety it brings (Katie Hopkins, anyone?), or using it to achieve their own ends, Mr President.

But whilst I don’t agree with the views of any of these characters, I do have to respect them for their honesty. They don’t hide their opinions. They say exactly what they think and are prepared to stand up in the face of judgement for that. That’s a brave move. It works the other way, too; J. K. Rowling has become almost as famous for her pithy one-liners on Twitter than she has for baby-faced wizardry. She’s suffered her fair share of criticism for this. But that’s the whole point of it all: whether you’re a Trump, a Rowling or a Nigel, if you have an opinion, you stand by it and are prepared to take the consequences. There’s a simple truth in that. Nigel seemed surprised when I told him that I wasn’t expecting his criticism last month. I don’t know whether this article has helped to assuage his doubts about my abilities as a columnist. But whatever his opinion is, I’m fairly sure I’ll hear of it – and that’s not a bad thing. The ability to take criticism fairly is as important as the ability to deliver it (I’ve learnt that the hard way, too). If something isn’t up to scratch, it’s important to know.

But I’ll never pay attention to the criticisms of those who write anonymous messages and hide behind pseudonyms. If you want to deliver your opinion, do it like a Nigel – face to face. Or at the very least, leave your name at the end of your comment. If you don’t, you may as well just sign it Troll. Rest assured, too, that you’ll be discovered eventually.

There aren’t that many bridges in Norfolk, after all.

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