You're nobody these days if you haven't had a verbal lynch mob issue you with death threats and abuse on social networking.
Just ask Mary Beard, public academic, who was surprised to find that the response to her recent appearance on Question Time included spiteful speculation about the capaciousness of her vagina, and a Photoshop image that superimposed her face onto a picture of female genitals.
The affront that prompted this, it seemed, was not what Beard had been saying on the show, but just the sheer fact of her being there in the first place. That she, as an older woman, one who doesn't dye her hair or groom herself into submission, had dared to show herself in public was so offensive to some people that they felt compelled to howl their rage into the cyber void in the most violent way.
It is of course, awful; misogyny at its worst, regressive sexual abuse the likes of which one would hope never to hear. The abuse was about her appearance. But had she been a young thing with the body of a page-three model and the face of an angel, or a middle-aged man, she wouldn't necessarily have been able to count on better treatment, either. No one is immune from this. Hot girls on Big Brother, commentators on panel discussions, politicians and weather presenters, anyone who ever voices an opinion on anything online ever – it's open season on all.
It's not limited to those in the public eye. You don't even have to be famous. Being savaged by a group of anonymous "haters" is now a teenage rite of passage, if not a weekly (or in some poor kids' cases, daily) occurrence.
We worry a lot about the amount of reflex sexism, racism and just general hate floating around out there, and this anxiety is appropriate. It's unsettling to see the ugliness of the human soul so roughly exposed. At first glance, this stuff is enough to make one despair for the whole project of civilisation. Outwardly we claim to value tolerance and kindness, we legislate for equality in the workplace and against aggression and abuse in institutions. But just the gentlest scratch of the surface of all these good intentions reveals a whole other society, where prejudice, disgust, rage and misogyny find violent expression.
So soul-searching is warranted. As are efforts to create code of ethics, encouraging people to exercise the same restraint online as they do in their day-to-day life. But alongside the soul-searching, comes a pressing need for all of us to start thickening our skin, and fast. Trolls, sadly, are here to stay.
Legislating against them is both futile and self-defeating. One can't argue in favour of censorship to protect a free, equal and egalitarian society – it's a contradiction in terms.
Parents can try to limit their kids' access to the internet of course, or turn it off themselves, but perhaps all our efforts might be better spent practising how to shrug off the nastiness. Perhaps we have something to learn from the experts – from people like X Factor contestant and Celebrity Big Brother winner Rylan Clark. Seriously. Because Rylan's experience at the coal-face of online hate, as revealed in a recent interview, is illuminating. You might remember that after surviving an elimination on the show, Twitter turned against him; an avalanche of fury and disgust came down on his head.
His confidence and life seemed destroyed, until a moment of epiphany. A man who had been busily sending him tweets "saying something like, 'when I see you I'm going to cut your throat, I want you dead, blah blah blah.' Two days after that, he was outside my hotel asking for a picture with me. I went, 'I recognise you.' And he was like, 'What? No, I just love you on the show, can I have a picture.' And I was like, 'You tweeted me didn't you?' And he looked at me and his face dropped and that's how I knew it was him.
"And I just started laughing. I thought: 'Oh my God. I've been letting this get to me so much. But these are people who'll say anything from behind a keyboard – and then in real life they want their photo with you.' That's when it all made sense ... that's when I realised, I'm fine with this, I'm fine with this."
Absorbing the sticks and stones mantra might not come easily. But if Rylan can do it, there's hope for the rest of us.