Flashback Friday: How to Deal with Cycling on Social Media

Another day, another news item somewhere about how cycleways are the cancer of the world… Actually, lately I seem to have been more stuck on dealing with the chatter around stories on speed limits, stadium costs, and bus lanes – although even then it’s surprising how often someone in Christchurch will throw in a snide remark about the “disaster” or cost of cycleways in our fair city. So, if you do feel like wading in and saying your piece (and I appreciate that many would rather just sit back with their popcorn and watch the fireworks…), what are some handy tips and rules for engagement? Hopefully this blogpost (originally from July 2015) can help you navigate the perilous world of social media…

angry businessman with cellular phone over white

I have to admit: sometimes I can get a bit addicted when a big cycling issue pops up on a public social media site, such as Facebook, Stuff.co.nz, TradeMe Messageboard, and so on. Many of you know what it’s like: the ranting begins over a cycling topic (sometimes even when it seemed quite non-controversial) and you can just feel honour-bound to defend the good name of cycling. Certainly in the last couple of weeks we’ve had plenty of practice, and there’s no doubt the opportunities will come up again.

So what are good practice “rules of engagement” if you want to dive in?

  • First ask – is it worth diving in? If it a one-off rant – and it seems that everyone else commenting is disregarding it or rebutting it – it may not be worth the bother. Why give oxygen to something that doesn’t deserve it? Perhaps just give it a “down-vote” if the comments system has that.
  • Read the friggin’ article (and the other comments). In the instant world of TLDR, it is clear that many commenters actually haven’t paid proper attention to the original article or the ensuing comments. Don’t be one of them! It looks a bit silly if you completely overlooked that thing they explained five lines in, or failed to observe that a previous commenter had already addressed your concern. So get up to speed first.
  • Fill in the facts. Maybe the person is simply misinformed or misunderstood the article. In which case, (politely) point out the bit that allays their concern, or provide a link to somewhere else that does that (e.g. cyclists don’t pay, or all cyclists run red lights). Are they stating something as fact that you know is wrong? Point to the evidence; if you are making a definitive statement in response, you should be able to back that up with a reference from somewhere other than your own mind. Be careful about your sources however; the interweb in particular is a huge source of misinformation that gets repeated until it becomes psuedo-fact. Authoritative links like Govt agency and academic research sites/reports are usually a better bet, but even they can be misinformed sometimes. It pays to “triangulate” your information from multiple independent sources if you can, to verify its validity. As the saying goes, “everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts”.

{Another trap for new players: the “Official NZ Road Code” (and its Cycling Code equivalent) are not the definitive word in traffic legislation in NZ. They are a simplified form of the actual Rules and Regulations, and unfortunately in a few cases little technicalities (like keeping left, or overtaking on a yellow line) have been worded a bit too simplistically. Better to read the original Road User Rules first for a precise version of the law.}

  • Provide a perspective for empathy or comparison. If people come from different world views (e.g. not regularly biking), it’s not surprising that they don’t all perceive a cycling issue in the same way you do. Perhaps try to address a generalisation by putting a personal spin on it – “I don’t bike in lycra and I stop at red lights – are you going to run me over too?” Or point out how their solution won’t work for you – “But if you ban biking on XYZ St, I won’t be able to get to my home there.” Sometimes it can be useful to present a comparison with another scenario or travel mode they might be more familiar with – “Does that mean that every pedestrian crossing the road should also have to wear a hi-vis jacket every time?”, “Do you react differently when you encounter a slow-moving tractor while driving?”, etc. If you come up with the right angle, it might shut down the more nonsensical arguments at least.
  • Try not to hide behind anonymity. This one’s probably a bit controversial, but if you have an honest contribution, why do you need to say it under a pseudonym? It tends to suggest that you are afraid of backlash, or of getting sued, or looking like an idiot, or… well, I don’t know. But it reduces your potential credibility too if you’re not prepared to put your name against your statements. It also seems to make it a lot easier for people to add a little bit of personal invective in there when their real name is not attached to it (no chance of it getting stuck on our “permanent internet record” now is there?). No doubt there are valid situations where anonymity makes absolute sense, but I’d say that most of them do not involve talking about cycling. (BTW, I may be “LennyBoy” here but it’s not hard to work out who I am. And I use my real name on other forums)
  • Don’t feed the trolls. Some people clearly like social media just for the entertainment value of winding people up (that includes some of the paid column writers too). Throw a couple of controversial statements into the midst (“Those cyclists just think they own the road, riding four abreast all the time…”), and then sit back with your popcorn while others explode around you. If you find that someone just continually seems to be deliberately contrary or provocative, it’s probably a sign that they don’t actually care about the merits of your argument (a sort of modern-day take on “I know you are but what am I?”). Leave them be.

  • Accept it if you learn something new. We’re not all-seeing all-knowing beings and so it’s no surprise that we’re continually realising what we don’t know. Hell, I have four degrees including a PhD, but I’m still always keen to learn (that’s why I just spent three months looking up close at cycling provision overseas). It may be a wrong assumption on our part, it may be that we heard an incorrect factoid via the interweb, it may just be a brand new piece of information we never knew about. And sometimes that will change our perspective on the matter. Admit as such and move on; many other commenters will appreciate you for it.
  • Review before you hit Send. This really should be applied every time you put your fingers near a keyboard, particularly if you started typing in a reflexive response to something that got your back up. Cast your eye back over what you have just typed. Does it make logical sense? Does it address the original point you were responding to? No spelling/grammar errors or missing words? (I always tend to think ahead of my typing…) Does it convey the right sense of seriousness / levity / sarcasm / whatever that you were after, or will someone misinterpret it?
  • Accept that you won’t convince/please everyone. As that noted philosopher Taylor Swift recently said, “the haters gonna hate (hate, hate, hate…)”. They might think that all cyclists are the same lycra-wearing, law-breaking, free-loading, [insert complaint here]… and no amount of rational reasoning is going to change their view on the subject (especially if they think you’re biased because you’re “one of them”). Move on.
  • Go for a ride instead! Or at least go for a ride before doing anything. Despite the instantaneous nature of so much social media, most of it actually doesn’t require you to respond straight away. Reflect on it while you enjoy some time doing what we actually like to do. It might be that, after your ride, the thing you wanted to respond to doesn’t bother you as much any more. Or maybe you’ve come up with a much better argument to respond with…

Social media is clearly here to stay and it makes for fascinating additional dynamic to many of the conversations that we have about topical issues, including cycling. It can be a useful “force for good” in getting people to think about the advantages of encouraging more cycling, but if not used well it can also further entrench attitudes about “bl**dy cyclists”

What tips do you have for people responding to social media comments about cycling?

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