One of the things that I really like about this blog, is that the commenters are (by and large!) courteous, on-topic and full of relevant learning (and languages). The comments engage with, and add to, the blog. Most people have read the original post very carefully .. too carefully sometimes, if you ask me (that's why they pick up all the errors of punctuation.... but thanks all). And they (I mean, you) make the blog more the sum of its parts.
I've only recently come to realise quite how different we are from the usual online postings. I've been doing a few BBC talks and the comments on these are nothing of our sort... there are some careful engagements, that's true, and I'm hugely grateful for those, whether pro or anti. But a frightening lot of the comments that appear on the Have Your Say BBC website seem to be driven by different versions of bile. Same is true for the Guardian Comment, Mumsnet .. or really any big commenting site.
There is an awful lot of 'this is rubbish'. 'you are a complete idiot to write this'... or "ho ho old lady, do you have a beard?'
My first reaction is slight fear. My second is to wonder what makes otherwise ordinary people write this vicious stuff when they get online, when they wouldn't do so otherwise. It is partly the pseudonyms, I think. On this blog most commenters use their own names, or their first names or initials: you/we/I are there as 'us'. On an awful lot of big public blogs, people adopt all kinds of 'noms de comment' .. like "StrawberryJam" or "RainingCatsandDogs" or "QueenElizabeth1" and so on. My hunch is that this kind of 'para-identity' somehow allows people to write in a way that they would never do under their own names. It gives them a licence to be rude, in a way that they would never be face to face.
Strangely (and a bit unnervingly), some keen commenters seem to bond with their soubriquets. When I misremembered the complicated soubriquet of one regular commenters on Mumsnet, she replied that it was an insult to get it wrong. An insult not to remember an online nickname? Come on..
It's also the sense -- when people are commenting on my online articles -- that they think are talking online about someone who isnt really a person. That's partly why I respond to some of even the most aggressive comments. It's just to remind everyone that there is 'me', a real person, there. And actually one who might be hurt by unmitigated vitriole.
I also think that NOT to reply is bad in itself. If you 'put yourself about' on the web or the radio, there is a duty (and in a way a pleasure) to respond and discuss. It not only reminds the commenter that there is a human being out there; it also confirms the general idea that we're in dialogue, not just in lecture. And I have found some good friends this way, in the constructive diagreements between 'author' and reader you can set up with 'new technology".
All the same, I do have one basic rule for online commenting. Cut all that "rubbish" amd "idiot" talk; only respond on the web as you would do if you were talking face to face. For me, it's a bit like reviewing: only say what you would say if you met the reviewer over a drink.