Matters of Principle

Zorro had his reasons but hiding your identity online is not acceptable if you expect people to trust you.

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?

11 Responses to “Matters of Principle”

  1. dexey Says:

    That’s a very interesting post. Thank you.

  2. iaintnotomato Says:

    Oooooooooooh, I’m hearing it from all angles now But I do agree that a blogger should accept comments. Its like screaming obscenities, from the other side of the playground, with the safety of the teachers there.

  3. chrisrust Says:

    I can see that you might prefer to use an alias when your blog is about personal experience and some people might feel vulnerable if they use their real names. But once you move into publicly criticising others for the decisions they make, you need to think carefully whether you are setting yourself up as a faceless “authority”. After all the people responsible for the things you criticise may be harmed by your actions. Jobst Brandt is particularly upset by the fact that it seems to be the “anonymous” participants in online debates who are most willing to be rude and aggressive towards others. If we are not prepared to say something under our own names maybe we shouldn’t say it?
    However, Caroline, while you don’t give your full name on your blog you give a great deal of personal information about yourself. Your readers “know” you and can see why you say what you do. You certainly don’t hide.

  4. Gareth Says:

    Interesting post Chris. To your observations about academic rigour I would add:

    – accuracy in citations. Personally I think Freewheeler uses my comment on your earlier post inaccurately

    – attribution of sources. Simon pointed out to me yesterday evening that a post on Crap Cycling etc includes a photograph of mine without proper acknowledgment.

    All of that said, I think the big question is ‘Why blog?’ If, one of the objectives is to change things, as it is in my case, then I think credibility is diminished by shouting anonymously. If however the objective is itself to have a row, then it doesn’t really make a difference. I would hope that this is not Freewheeler’s objective as there are plenty of non-cycling commentators worth arguing with – hence my post yesterday

  5. Simon Says:

    Chris, thanks for a very fair post. On the issue of whether I allow comments, I have four blogs, and having checked, the comments settings are as follows:-
    Cycleblog (personal blog about rides etc) users with Google accounts can comment.
    CTC-RTR used for posting ” official” stuff related to being CTC right to Ride for Sheffield, e.g. TRO’s etc. Registered users can comment.
    Sustrans Sheffield – used to relay info about what the Sustrans Rangers group have been up to – Registered users can comment.
    WildNorthlands (non-cycling stuff) – Registered users can comment.

    Registered Users includes OpenID.

    I’ve tried allowing anonymous commenting, but the spammers soon find you!

    I do have an alias – wildnorthlands – since as I am very visible on the web I do think I am entitled to a certain degree of privacy. I hope I would never use it to conduct personal attacks on people though. You may or may not be interested to know that I have used wildnorthlands as a trading name since 1978.

    Also have picked up on freewheelers comment that we don’t have links to your blog or sheffieldcyclechic on the cyclesheffield – this is not because we don’t allow links to anything negative on the site, far from it, if you follow the blog posts there are plenty of negative posts and as well as positive ones about Sheffield’s transport policy – simply that we’ve never got round to it. I’ve asked the webmaster to add these.

    Lastly just to make the point that cycle campaigners are perpetually caught between two stools. To the general public we wish to say, cycling’s great, give it a try. To the council we wish to say, you’ve made a dreadful mess of it all, please try harder! Cycle training can go a long way to make up for the shortcomings of the road & cycle network though.

  6. Simon Geller Says:

    CycleSheffield meeting, 13th Jan, 340 Glossop Rd, 7:30. Come and tell your local cycle campaign group what you think we’re doing wrong (or right). Only members have voting rights but you can join on the night.

  7. sheffield cycle chic Says:

    It is interesting that you are the only bloke I’ve come across that has considered the possibility Freewheeler is female!

    It is very easy to wind people up on the internet and take things the wrong way – a lot of Freewheeler’s comments are very tongue-in-cheek, but easily misunderstood. I would imagine trying to manage the comments for that blog and write 4 blog posts a day, would be a full-time job! Although it would make for a very interesting and lively debate.

    I realise that Simon feels like he was personally attacked, but the original post his statement referred to related to a post that was just a general whinge about the lack acknowledgement that the status quo isn’t working. When I first read it I felt Simon’s Statement, it seemed a bit unnecessary and it was hardly a surprise that Freewheeler felt it warranted a sarcastic response.

    Crap Cycling and Walking in Waltham Forest has played a very important role in cataloguing the ineptness of traffic engineers and local councillors. The sheer volume of work (over the last 3 1/2 years) has now made far more cyclists than ever before realise how bad what they put up with everyday is. The contrast with David Hembrow’s blog couldn’t be greater. The combination of these two blogs, together with the excellent work by Mikael at Copenhagenize has galvanized a lot of cyclists into action and the formation of the GB Cycling Embassy is a positive step forward.

    In answer to the question of anonyminity – to be honest if Freewheeler is a female cyclist blogging in London, she has every right to be worried for her own safety. There are enough nutters on the internet and dealing with pornographic and abusive comments is tiresome (ever tried Myspace?), but there are a lot of genuinely scarey people in London (I used to live in Hackney) and the threat of physical abusive is much more real.

  8. Gareth Says:

    ‘Crap Cycling and Walking in Waltham Forest has played a very important role in cataloguing the ineptness of traffic engineers and local councillors.’

    Maybe so, but I think that the question that this raises is whether telling people publicly how inept they are is the best way to influence their behaviour. Personally I rather doubt it.

  9. chrisrust Says:

    I guess I try to take a wishy washy approach. I’ll be critical enough to upset Simon but then spoil it all by trying to be nice and understanding too.
    Actually what really irritates me is that when I have criticised businesses in this blog they have been quick to say sorry and promise to try harder, local authorities tend to just crouch a bit lower, even when I’ve made sure that responsible people know what I’ve said.

  10. Gareth Says:

    I think what you highlight there Chris is a fundamental difference between businesses (concerned about losing customers) and public bodies (confident that cyclists’ concerns are not likely to swing an election).

    On this latter point I am an optimist. We inevitably face rising oil prices and all the electric cars in the world will not solve the problems of congestion, so the fundamentals are in favour of cycling and when we become sufficiently numerous to swing elections we will get taken seriously. That’s why although I find the UK’s car culture oppressive and dispiriting I like to emphasise that for the most part I like cycling, it’s fun and sociable.

  11. chrisrust Says:

    >> I think what you highlight there Chris is a fundamental difference between businesses (concerned about losing customers) and public bodies (confident that cyclists’ concerns are not likely to swing an election). <<

    I feel it's more about public employees keeping their heads down, they are not empowered to respond to public criticism and the personal cost of getting it wrong can be quite high. I've previously approached the same people about specific gaps or faults in the Sheffield cycle map and they have been very responsive because they can be. Challenge them on policy and it changes the question to one they can't answer.

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