Cycling and social media: do you read the comments?

Someone once told me he had a basic rule concerning anything that's written about cycling and published online: "Don't read the comments."

The way he saw it, there was a risk that any enjoyment he might glean from a well-reasoned or informative article could be compromised by what he might find in the feedback section underneath.

After almost three years of blogging about cycling, I'm still amazed by the controversy that surrounds the simple act of getting onto a bicycle.

As a polarising topic, cycling really deserves a place alongside the traditionally avoided subjects of sex, religion and politics (some would argue that it has aspects of all three).

The internet is a democracy of sorts - everyone can have a voice, and on countless occasions I've read online comments that have taught me something new, or inspired me, or helped me to see something from another angle.

This is most likely to be true of articles aimed specifically at cyclists, or dealing with uncontroversial topics.

But when reports turn to more general issues, such as road incidents, infrastructure, or rule changes to benefit bicycles, the debate all too often descends into anger, a seeming disregard for common humanity, and even hatred.

Not to mention the usual tedious generalisations, stereotyping, name-calling, ignorance and unsupported contentions that are too often trotted out. You know the stuff ... 'Lycra loonies, shouldn't be on the road, they're always in the wrong', etc etc. 

On the other side of the equation to the abovementioned knee-jerk reactions are the cyclists who dive into online debates with near-missionary zeal.

Advertisement

One such commenter, with a distinctive nom de plume, is such a determined and diligent advocate for cycling on Australian media websites – copying in findings from government reports, posting paragraphs of relevant legislation – that I reckon he should be funded by road safety authorities. Chapeau!

Facebook and Twitter

Most news sites have comment moderators or filtering systems, with varying levels of effectiveness. It's when you delve into the largely unregulated world of social media that things can turn really ugly.

Look at any cycling-related post on a media organisation's Facebook page and you'll likely see the tone of the comments is considerably lowered. The police's media Facebook pages are also a regular venue for victim-blaming when incidents involving cyclists are reported.

Worse are the many pages that publish video footage of road incidents; the commentary always goes into overdrive whenever a clip involving a cyclist is posted.

Even if you try to stay away from such stuff, it can sneak up on you - a friend sharing a link, a post from a general news site you've "liked", the comments underneath a viral YouTube clip.  

I find Twitter to be a great resource for finding interesting articles from around the world that don't turn up in Google searches. But a casual search of "cyclists" or "cycling" will also likely yield a litany of angry interjections - admittedly, often by people who don't appear to like anything

A recent article in The Conversation by road safety expert Marilyn Johnson noted that while society is cracking down on many forms of abuse, such as bullying, workplace harassment and domestic violence, it still appears to be socially acceptable to joke about harming or threatening cyclists in Australia.

But much of the chatter on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube is not even an attempt at humour. As Greg Bearup noted in his detailed report on cycling in The Australian, the online commentary after six cyclists were hit by a car in Sydney in March was appalling, with remarks such as "I swerve to hit cyclists", "lycra scum" and "stay the f--- off our road". It was by no means an unusual display. 

Of course, even when the posts number in the thousands, this is nevertheless a small percentage of society, and hopefully much of it is theatre – bravado and posturing from behind a keyboard.

A popular theory goes that people are nasty on the internet because they're anonymous, but people posting bile on Facebook often do so in full view of their myriad "friends" and family. And it's especially alarming, as a vulnerable road user, to discover with a few clicks that some person ranting about cyclists works as a truck driver.

Online media has given people unprecedented ability to spread their opinions, and they're not always the thoughts one likes to see. As congestion grows and frustration rises, cyclists are an easy target.

But I'm also of the opinion that the noise around cycling indicates change, as cycling becomes more and more popular.

Riding a bike is uncontroversial and mainstream in so many parts of the world. Hopefully, we will look back in the not-too-distant future and scarcely believe all the fuss and fury we're currently going through. 

Do you read the comments always, sometimes, or never? What's your approach to social media and cycling? Do you ever respond to negative comments?

To encourage constructive debate, this blog will be carefully moderated; please stay on topic.

Follow Michael O'Reilly on Twitter or email him.