Cover story or cover-up? (Why I despise anonymous cowards on the internet)

Do you remember when you were little and at around the age of eight or nine, your eye was drawn to the book that had landed in your house the previous Christmas. It was probably a gift for an older sibling but before long you took ownership of it.

The book was called How Did They Do That? or Where Did It Start? and it most likely featured dubious cartoons that accompanied interesting facts and figures about science, history and the like. It was our first look at facts, delivered in a way that was accessible and entertaining.

Publisher Dorling Kindersley does a great job in this respect now but most people who need to look up a random fact of interest will do so by beginning their search with the letters www.

The internet is great but . . . there are problems and we can't pretend that they don't exist. This isn't some sort of anti-technological rant, it's just a statement of fact.

It's also a defence of books, pretty much any book, whose integrity deserve to be defended in an age when they appear to be under threat.

Let's start with reference books and their authors versus the internet as a source of cross-reference and fact checking. A book on the subject of bull frogs or American presidents is likely to be written by a bull-frog lover or presidential historian respectively. These authors will have researched the subject matter intensively and with due care and attention.

On the internet, anyone is an expert. Just google "bull frog" or "American presidents" and a search result will throw up thousands of sites dedicated to these subjects with unending articles to choose from, written by a multitude of authors whose provenance is uncertain.

Uncertainty is a byword for the internet. So is anonymity. Take Wikipedia as a prime example of the grey area that exists in the world of cyber knowledge. Seemingly, it's a fact-free bull run for any passing eejit to come along and add whatever fact or fiction they desire and up it goes onto the site, thus becoming 'fact' for the person who checks that site for information.

Wikipedia offers some help, in that much of the information offered is true -- but I, for one, would never take any information gleaned from that site as gospel. That niggling doubt is enough to throw me back into the arms of an honest-to-goodness book, meticulously researched by someone who cared about the subject and about the truth.

There is nothing wrong with having an encyclopaedia on your bookshelf. In fact, just look at the bibliography at the back of any such book and the chances are the list will be the length of your arm. The book will have been brilliantly researched and deserves to be on the shelf in any book-lover's house. The internet is also a wonderful playground for the literate coward whose polemics and diatribes are given anonymous bylines by contributors who haven't the balls to admit their true identities. I've always felt that these guys are mostly slightly angry science-fiction fans who can offer the details of Jean-Luc Picard's family life and the mechanics of the Tardis and who ended up with a girl who looked like a Dalek or K-9, or a guy who looks like a Farengi.

I'm happy to admit I know who these things and people are, but I also add my name to everything I do, say and write and so I put myself out there and up for grabs. And grab they do, but under the shadowy cover of names like Catman or Twenty Rothmans or whatever.

The nastier (and angrier) types are particularly profane and it's very rare to see a kind word about anyone, apart from one of their friends who also writes in the shadows and who they probably have never met. Thankfully, I don't read these things because they offer nothing of any use to me.

I'd rather read a newspaper article written by someone who has earned their job through hard work, went out to investigate the topic and came back armed with a story and a byline. This must be preferable to reading the wild rantings of some deluded bed-sitter who would love to be doing the job of the person he's knocking, berating and criticising.

Wouldn't it be much more interesting if the creatures of the modern chat room let us know who they really were? It would be like going into a dark room and suddenly switching on the light only to discover a bunch of keyboard-tapping Troglodytes, rubbing their eyes, confused at the thought of being recognised by other humans.

But maybe I'm being too harsh? Perhaps people like to hide their identity because they are at work or maybe they are well known and don't want their true thoughts to be exposed. But those excuses feel a bit flimsy.

So what is the reason for literary cowardice? Is it satire? Is it clever? Again, flimsy reasons. I'm left feeling that the only reasonable answer is cowardice.

They are scared to be recognised for having such strong opinions on anything. They are afraid of being taken on. They are worried about what other people might say about them. They dread to think what their peers might think. They don't want to be judged, they just want to do the judging.

Normally, that's fine, I do it myself when I'm having a couch potato moment, but I don't sit at my laptop for three hours going back and forth under the cover of anonymity, trading nasty comments about some person or thing with somebody I'm unlikely to ever meet.

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