The feature about breastfeeding older children appeared in The Times on Saturday (see previous blog), life goes on, all seems well. My friend who was interviewed and photographed for the piece has thanked me for advising her to accept the invitation to take part. She feels proud that she’s publicised an important issue by agreeing to tell the paper why she’s still feeding her four year old daughter. And yet I can’t help feeling that I gave advice which I wouldn’t have had the courage to follow myself.
In the old days, before the internet, people would have read the piece and quietly approved or disapproved in the privacy of their own homes. Maybe one or two letters would have been published a couple of days later on the letters page. But why keep your opinions to yourself when, in seconds and with no need even for a stamp, you can post your thoughts online. “Incredulity” and “disgust” are among the negative comments on this piece. Another man claims to have been put off his cornflakes. To be fair, there are also some positive remarks – and the fact that there’s a subscription charge means access is limited to the regular Times Online readers. It also means my friend hasn’t seen one contributor’s rather offensive conclusion that she’s involved in “disguised female sexual abuse”.
The ability for people to discuss stories online is clearly an important part of the reader interaction so valued by today’s media. But being at the end of a virtual connection seems to give a feeling of detachment, which allows readers to vent their anger and disapproval with little thought for anyone’s feelings, in the same way as being behind the wheel of a car can enable normally calm, placid individuals to engage in furious bouts of road rage. You could argue that any interviewees who tell journalists about a controversial aspect of their private lives would be naive not to expect an online backlash. But it would be sad to think that people might be put off making a public stand for what they believe in because of vicious comments posted by complete strangers.