One of my posts, criticising my home city for some of the cycling infrastructure, has attracted a few people to express their opinions. It was even used by another blogger, who calls herself Freewheeler, as evidence in a critical post about Simon Geller, one of the contributors to that small debate.
Simon and I do not see things completely the same way, and he can be an awkward person to deal with sometimes, but he works hard to support cycling development and our local cycling community would be less interesting without him. However that’s not what I wanted to focus on here.
Jobst Brandt, an iconic cycling veteran and early adopter of online forums, has been very harsh about people who express opinions behind a screen of anonymity. He feels that it is just rude but I believe that it’s worse than that. If you hide behind an alias you can say what you like and nobody can take you to task. You may be a distinguished and respected member of your community but on the web you can lie, cheat, malign innocent people or just spout idiocy and you suffer no consequences.
Maybe that’s acceptable in a virtual environment with no connections to the real world but, if you present yourself as offering opinions of value in real life, especially if you seek to influence others in a public arena such as transport policy, then anonymity is unacceptable.
Freewheeler, the author of Crap Cycling and Walking in Waltham Forest sets out to reveal poor transport planning in her part of the world. She is quite assiduous in gathering photographs and writing critical and seemingly well-reasoned posts about some of the foolish things that she observes. What can be wrong with that? I must say I enjoy and agree with many of the observations she makes but it all grinds to a halt when you see that, not only does she give no clue about who she is but she does not allow anybody to respond to any of her critical musings. No comments are allowed.
So she floats free. Nobody can question what she says, and actually when Simon Geller made a very moderate comment in another location, in response to something that Crap Cycling and Walking had said, she accused him of having a “hissy fit” and launched into a tirade which used his participation in the comment discussion on my own post as evidence that he is an unsatisfactory human being.
When I wrote this originally I said Actually Simon is not completely satisfactory because, although he uses his first name in his own blog and a lot of people know exactly who he is, he is reticent about his full identity and also does not allow comments. however I think his response below indicates that he is actually open to comment and has thought about how to handle that in the various web contexts.
Why am I annoyed about all this? Maybe it’s because my work as an academic has drawn me into a culture that prizes rigour and honesty and requires its members to justify their beliefs with evidence, be open to criticism and prepared to be judged for what they say. Of course academia is full of fools and charlatans like anywhere else, but the academic system is geared to not letting you get away with sloppy thinking, you have to be sure of your evidence and arguments because there is always somebody looking out to see if you have slipped up. That’s why I feel comments on a blog are a great form of insurance.
If somebody wants to influence a community then they owe it to themselves and their community to be open and democratic, to welcome critical discussion.
That’s why I use my own name, and why I allow comments. I don’t always accept a comment for inclusion but I have clear rules and always explain to somebody why I have not included their message. I explain all that in my Blog Policy page.
Now, where did I put that asbestos suit?