The Covert Critique

A stab at the virtual ‘poisoned pen’ of the online critic, and a consideration of the freedom that comes with internet anonymity.

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The majority of us are brought up to be polite. We are taught to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, and to respect people with differing opinions. Most importantly, we are taught to keep unnecessary criticisms to ourselves. In the words of many a despairing mother: “If you can’t say anything nice then don’t say anything at all.” Generally, people obey these rules. So, why is it that the Internet changes our ideas about what is socially acceptable to say?

The answer is simple: we love anonymity. Take Rebecca Black, for example. We all know that Friday was a flop, but was there any real need for so much vitriolic hatred? One of the milder commenters on her YouTube video wrote: “Thumbs If She Sounds Like A Dieing Cow Who Has No Friends.” Now, THAT is some cutting diatribe. And whilst it’s true that everyone has to learn to take criticism, calling someone a “Dieing Cow” on an Internet comment board isn’t really doing anyone much good.

Whilst we can safely say that Friday was a substantial fail, we need to remember that Rebecca Black is just a 13 year-old girl who was forced into the limelight by pushy parents with too much spare dollar. Someone needed to tell her that she oughtn’t pursue a singing career, but nobody needed to send her death threats. The reaction that Friday elicited almost makes me think that we are losing our humanity.


The now infamous ‘Friday’

Anonymity is great if you want to express your opinions without worrying about the repercussions. I’ve certainly have filled in many Student Self-Assessment Questionnaires with frank (though not quite brutal) honesty. Anonymity can set free all our peeves and tempered criticisms which, ordinarily, we just wouldn’t own up to. And in some situations this can be useful. Being allowed to criticise anonymously and impersonally leads to franker and more honest opinions.

Moreover, the power of Internet anonymity is changing the ways our political world operates: take the Libyan protests, many of which were organised anonymously via Facebook. This anonymity allowed protesters to fight for democracy on a scale that would have been unimaginable even 10 years ago. The Internet genuinely has the ability to change people’s lives for the better.

But, I can’t help but think that we’ve taken the concept of being anonymous too far. Instead of keeping our hatred to ourselves, we can now express it, very publicly, with the mere click of a mouse. The Internet has unleashed a proverbial demon in all of us. These days, it only takes a few seconds to write something so hateful you’d never dream of saying it aloud. It’s all too easy to hide behind a pseudonym.

This topic been brought to our attention recently, with the breaking of Ryan Giggs’s super-injunction via Twitter. Whilst the tweeter felt able to release the information anonymously behind a pseudonym, Giggs is reportedly suing for access to his or her identity. If he succeeds, online anonymity will be put in danger, and the consequences could be severe.

Here, the message is clear: don’t let mockery and rudeness undermine the power that online anonymity gives us. The Internet can be used to achieve previously unimaginable greatness. But, it inevitably encourages people to hide behind their computer screens and forget that the people they read about on the Internet are real, and they deserve the same amount of respect as anyone else you may meet. We need to treat Internet anonymity with care, or else, it might be ruined altogether.