The Internet Warriors

viewpointI read a blog this week that saddened me, but didn’t unduly surprise me. Iain Cameron regularly contributes to various strands of social media and has made something of a name for himself as Scotland’s snow patch expert.

Iain’s contributions to social media are fascinating and his work necessitates long journeys into the Scottish mountains at all times of the year, journeys that often takes him far from the ‘safety’ of footpaths and Munro-bagger’s routes.

He has, for a number of years, collated information about Scotland’s snow cover, information that is crucial, for example, in the fight against climate change, but I don’t want to go into detail about Iain’s work (editor – see Ben Dolphin’s articles here on Walkhighlands).

What I want to comment on is an aspect of social media that has in this case, made Iain Cameron remove himself from a particular Facebook group he contributed to. It appears he had the audacity to make some comments about mountaineering equipment, comments that could be construed as controversial.

Again, I’m not going into detail about his comments, you can read them here, but I will comment on the personal abuse that Iain has received from some of the other members of the Facebook group.

Whilst forums can be useful and become a positive community when moderated correctly, anyone who uses social media on a regular basis will be well aware of the bile and intolerance that can often appear on the forums and interest groups. I used to think this stuff came from those who lack the courage and audacity to comment under their own name and instead used pen names, but it seems just as common on Facebook where real names are mainly used.

Such contributors can make false statements, be unduly critical or downright abusive in the anonymity of their pseudonym and that anonymity appears to offer a personal protection that wouldn’t exist otherwise.

Using a pseudynym isn’t new of course. Ellis and Acton Bell (the Brontë sisters); George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair); James Herriot (James Wight); John le Carré (David Cornwell); Lee Child (Jim Grant) have all been successful authors but the point is this. None of these authors have used a pen name to distort, be unduly critical, harangue, become unnecessarily rude or in some cases, abusive, unlike many of today’s internet warriors.

I’m sure there are numerous reasons why individuals feel they have to resort to such methods to make their point but, as Iain Cameron points out in his blog: “Over the last 5 to 10 years there has been a noticeable breakdown in civility in this arena. There are many reasons for this, which are too long and too numerous to outline here. Suffice it to say that I find it depressing.”

Iain found it so depressing that he removed himself from the Facebook page, an understandable reaction but one that deprives more sensible users of Facebook the expertise and information that Iain has to share.

Iain Cameron

A few years ago I read the autobiography of cyclist Mark Cavendish. In that book he described why he gave up on social media completely because of the online abuse he received from internet critics, and bear in mind Cavendish is a racing cyclist, not a politician, not a journalist, and certainly not a paedophile or rapist. He is simply a guy going about his business.

There’s little doubt that envy is the driving force behind much of such bile. I couldn’t quite believe the abuse that emanated from a piece I wrote recently about ‘following my dream’ and making a reasonably successful living at it.

I’m also aware of the criticism I get from various individuals simply because I have the nerve to appear on television from time to time.

Some of the remarks are highly personal and it simply amazes me that many of the comments come from people I have never met, people who don’t otherwise know me from Adam. But hey, that’s the kind of society we live in. When the President of the United States can write abusive comments on social media then there are those who think it’s OK for them too. Hey ho…

My advice to Iain Cameron is simple. Stay clear of the abusive forums and Facebook pages and use the ‘block’ button on Twitter with alacrity. Life is too short to get into internet conflict with individuals who don’t have the guts to publish their bile under their own name, people who appear to get a curious kick out of the reactions they might stimulate.

I’ve been writing about the outdoors for over 40 years and in that time, God knows, I’ve had my share of criticism. Some of it’s been unfair, some of it has been personal, but a lot of it has been completely legitimate, and delivered in a constructive way.

Such criticism has often changed my own view about various things and in other cases I’ve happily taken the criticism to heart, but abusive criticism, personal invective and ill-informed comment are simply batted away by the elephant-hide skin I’ve developed in four decades of journalism.

I’m pretty certain the type of person who criticises in an abusive way is not a new phenomenon – these creeps have been around since Adam was a wean, but social media has given them a new platform, a platform in which they can, for a few minutes and a few minutes only, enjoy a certain amount of notoriety and infamy.

There was a time, in my youthful naivety, when I believed all hill goers were nice people. I once said on radio that if everybody was a hillwalker the world would be a much better place. I now know better.

I’m now aware there are some nasty individuals climbing hills and roaming wild places as well as the decent folk. And if you met them on the hill they probably wouldn’t say boo to a goose, but put them in their little garret, give them a computer keyboard and they become Syd Vicious. Ho-hum…

As Iain Cameron wrote: “It is impossible to wrestle with chimney sweeps and stay clean, so I shan’t bother.”

I’ll say amen to that brother.

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