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In praise of web anonymity

August 3, 2013

The Twitter rape threat row shows no signs of abating, as many users pledge to take a one-day break from the site this Sunday, August 4th. Author and columnist Caitlin Moran says she’s taking a 24-hour ‘trolliday’ from the site “because it will focus minds at Twitter to come up with their own solution to the abuses  of their private company”.

Twitter have already caved in to demands for a ‘report abuse’ button – which, as I argued earlier this week, is likely to cause as many problems as it solves. But many commentators claim this doesn’t go far enough, and are calling for an end to anonymous accounts on social network sites like Twitter.

Writing in the Guardian, Simon Jenkins claims that the internet has become a masked ball, “whose concealed dancers may be corporations or governments, paedophiles or rapists, weirdos or fools”, demanding that “it must be regulated”.

Jenkins echoes the online disinhibition effect, “a loosening (or complete abandonment) of social restrictions and inhibitions that would otherwise be present in normal face-to-face interaction during interactions with others on the Internet”. Anonymity, it’s suggested, is itself the cause of so much anti-social behaviour online.

Although I would certainly never condone the type of abuse that Moran describes, we need to be wary of losing the enormous benefits that anonymity on the web brings all of us.

Anonymity can be a wonderful thing. Many of those commenting on blogs and forums are doing so from beneath a pseudonym, so they can speak freely on the issues that concern them without it being part of their Google footprint, drawing scorn from real-life friends and family.


Anonymity can be a powerful force for good online

Anonymity allows us to practice having different points of view; we can be a more conservative or liberal version of ourselves in online discussions, which helps us to form our own opinions and arguments.

And it’s there where the spectrum of trolling begins. At one end you have someone taking a contrary opinion in order to get a rise out of someone. This kind of anonymous trolling can be a noble art, and we saw a fine example of such this week, when Pukkah Punjabi trolled the ‘racist van’.

At the other end of the spectrum you have people shouting vile abuse at strangers. This is clearly wrong, and rightly illegal. What one woman might be willing to ignore, or consider a joke, another might find scary and threatening, especially when received as frequently as some high-profile women do.

Where trolling ends and abuse begins is difficult to define, but we should exercise caution so we don’t lose the benefits of anonymity in our rush to rid the web of abuse.

MIT academic Sherry Turkle has written extensively about the value of the anonymous web in allowing people to experiment with different facets of their personality and opinions, in order to develop our sense of self and identity. In Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, Turkle talks about how the internet allows us to engage in new ways of thinking about evolution, relationships, politics, sex, and the self.

As an example, someone who is coming to terms with their sexuality might participate in online discussions in LGBT forums. Being able to do so without risk of disapproval from friends or families can prove a vital lifeline for a young person to develop their identity and sexuality.

Anonymity can bring benefits in everyday situations. For example, when I was last looking for advice on finding a new job, I was much more comfortable doing so in the knowledge that my boss at the time couldn’t look it up.

But anonymity can equally be an issue of personal safety. I have one friend who will only comment online under a pseudonym as they have been a victim of real-life stalking.

For others, anonymity is a matter of life and death. Twitter is widely thought to have played a key role in galvanising the Arab Spring, but that was only possible because people felt they could use it anonymously, without fear of reprisals.  We should be very mindful of the implications of ending web anonymity in those parts of the world where speaking publicly can have serious consequences.

Padraig Reidy, blogging in response to Caitlin Moran, hit the nail squarely on the head:

“The web is wonderful, and possibly the greatest manifestation of the free speech space we’ve ever had, but it’s also susceptible to control. Governments such as those in China and Iran spend massive resources on controlling the web, and do quite a good job of it. Other states simply slow the connection, making the web a frustrating rather than liberating experience. Some governments simply pull the plug. The whole of YouTube has been blocked in Pakistan for almost a year now, because something had to be done about blasphemous videos.”

The web is far less anonymous than it used to be. When I first started using it, everyone was anonymous, all the time. Then, as now, there were a handful of idiots who would abuse that anonymity in order to get attention.

In the two decades since, the web has opened up communication and ideas in ways few dreamed possible. As a tool which enables people to speak freely with others all over the world, putting thousands of information sources at our fingertips, the web has fueled revolutions and overthrown governments.  But through providing anonymity, it’s also been revolutionary for individuals, allowing people to discover their sense of self, to find a partner, to form and change opinions, and much else besides.

While more can be done to streamline the process of reporting and preventing abuse, we should all be very wary of losing the real and valuable benefits anonymity can bring in a knee-jerk reaction to a small but vocal group of idiots.

(Photo credit: Stian Eikeland on Flickr)

A ‘report abuse’ button on Twitter will create more problems than it solves

July 29, 2013

Twitter today responded to calls to make it easier for people to report abusive messages received through its service, pledging to introduce a ‘report abuse’ button.

This follows a weekend of controversy for the platform as feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez faced a deluge of hundreds of vile tweets, including threats to rape and kill her, after she successfully campaigned for a woman’s picture to be put on a new banknote.

Criado-Perez refused to be silenced and took to both traditional and digital media to name and shame those who’d made the threats. Twitter drew criticism from politicians on all sides. Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper described their response as “weak” and “inadequate”, while the Police’s social media lead called for the company to make further changes to the platform to prevent abuse.

In the past three days, over 50,000 people have signed the petition calling for the introduction of a ‘report abuse’ button. These tens of thousands will no doubt be pleased to hear Twitter has heeded their demands, and included this functionality in the latest release of their iPhone app, with other apps and sites to follow.

But we should be careful what we wish for. A button will not, alone, rid Twitter (or the wider world) of mysogyny and abuse. These are complex issues that will take more than a button to resolve. But ‘report abuse’ buttons have been known to be widely abused on other networks, an introducing this to Twitter will create new and complex problems for individuals and brands online.

Abuse buttons are easily abused

Back in 2010 I wrote about the case of a magazine which disapppeared from Facebook after falling victim to misuse of the report button. They found their page – and the personal accounts of all the admins – disappeared overnight, with no recourse to appeal.

After writing that piece, I heard similar stories from social media specialists of pages shut down and valuable content lost through malicious reporting, commercial rivalry, or simply mischief-making. Community managers and social media managers have found disappearing content to be a depressingly regular occurrence. It only takes a handful of reports to have content removed automatically – putting campaigns and content at risk of malicious removal, and putting the personal accounts of the admins at risk of deletion.

Facebook has long since made it simple to report different kinds of abuse, from breaches of terms of service to copyright violation, but provides no means by which brands and organisations can appeal when this is misused.


More recently Facebook introduced the concept of ‘protected accounts’, where pages are protected from automatic shut-down – but this isn’t a service they publicise, and is largely only available to paying advertisers.

Introduction of a similar mechanism on Twitter ironically creates a whole new means by which trolls can abuse those they disagree with. The report abuse button could be used to silence campaigners, like Criado-Perez, by taking advantage of the automatic blocking and account closure such a feature typically offers. In that way, it could end up putting greater power in the trolls’ hands.

A report feature could also be used by campaign groups to ‘bring down’ brands or high-profile individuals (such as MPs) through co-ordinated mass reporting.

The abuse button will do little to prevent abusive messages

It’s not at all clear that an abuse button will do much to prevent the use of abusive and threatening language on Twitter, either.

Unlike Facebook – which these days makes it quite difficult to register a new account, and in storing so much of your life history creates implicit incentives toward good behaviour as users truly fear having accounts deleted – the barriers to entry on Twitter are low. All you need to create a Twitter account is an email address; you can be up and running in under a minute. If users are blocked or banned for abuse, they can – and will – simply create new IDs and keep on going.

The introduction of a report button could simply create a tedious game of cat and mouse in which the immature and misogynistic simply treat being reported and banned as a wind-up to be ignored.

Button-pushing mechanisms rarely create real change

To create real change, and really tackle the issue of abuse on Twitter (and indeed, mysogyny in the wider world) we have to recognise it’s s complex problem which can’t be resolved by giving people a button to press and make it go away.

Abuse is sometimes clear-cut, but often it’s subjective. What someone may regard as a joke or sarcasm, others could see as abuse and threatening language – as the Twitter Joke Trial proved all too well.

Threats of violence and rape are, rightly, against the law (the Malicious Communications Act 2003 outlaws electronic communications which are “grossly offensive” or threatening). Writing for the Guardian, feminist writer Jane Rae argues more could be achieved by applying these existing laws.

It’s encouraging to see the UK police have already made one arrest over the threats against Criado-Perez, because seeing people being prosecuted for what is a serious crime sends a far stronger message to trolls than having their Twitter account blocked. I, for one, hope the police take action against more of those who have threatened violence.

A report button is an ineffectual knee-jerk response to the issue. But that it’s been introduced in a hurry – leaving no time to ensure it’s properly thought through, resourced, or supported by processes created through discussion with law enforcement agencies – means this is a move that’s likely to do little to tackle abuse on Twitter, but rather create new ways for people and brands to be abused.

UPDATE: Several bloggers have expressed reservations about this too, thinking more about some of the problems with trying to automate the process of identifying and tackling abuse. Here are some posts worth reading:

The future of business is now

May 30, 2013

Following on from my talk on mobility and connectedness at Intranatverk last week, I’ve pulled together this quick blog post for Business Reimagined on how technology is changing the way we work, making predictions about new ways of working a reality for more and more people.

The business of reimagining business is nothing new. Popular narrative from the middle of the last century painted the new millennium as an age of domestic automation, jetpacks and interplanetary travel – and all turned out to be some way off the mark.

More prescient, though, was Brave New World author Aldous Huxley, who in 1950 was asked to predict what work would be like in the year 2000. He wrote:“…offices will be relocated in small country communities, where life is cheaper, pleasanter and  more genuinely human than in those breeding-grounds of mass neurosis, the great metropolitan centers of today.”

Granted, he was wrong about quite a few things (not least that  the 20-hour work week would become standard) and in the year 2000 most of us were firmly chained to our desks.  But in the thirteen years since, the digital workplace – the ecosystem of communication tools, social platforms and business systems within the enterprise – has succeeded in making Huxley’s prediction something closer to a reality for a growing number of workers.

The revolution in technology since the turn of the 21st century has been accompanied by a seismic shift in working cultures that has seen the commute and the 9-5 workplace become a thing of the past.

The arrival of the digital workplace has led businesses to completely rethink the way they work. By moving the tools people need to do their jobs online, businesses have made it possible for their employees to work from anywhere – so that work becomes what you do, not where you go.

Already one in ten office workers in Western Europe are mobile, working all or part of the time from home, and this is growing by 6% a year.

Mobility, supported by a good digital workplace, has a raft of well-documented benefits, including improved productivity and reduced costs, as well as making employees happier and healthier. Businesses are quickly realising that mobility isn’t a nice to have; in a world where competitive advantage is everything, becoming more responsive and productive is essential.

But while technology is a central component of the digital workplace, making a success of it means focussing instead on people – not designing mobile websites, but designing policies, places and online services for people who are mobile.

For example, the digital workplace allows smart companies to change the way their use physical space; instead of banks of desks used from 9-5, they give people well-designed space to think, work alone, or to collaborate. Not simplyless space, but the right space and place for the task at hand – whether that’s at home, on the road, or in the office.

Design matters. If the primary way those who work for you experience the organisation is online, the online experience can’t be a bad one. Successful mobile organisations recognise the importance of brand, design and user experience in the digital workplace.

Enterprise mobility is a decentralising force, but this shift can lead employees to feel disconnected from their colleagues. Successful organisations work to establish community through social intranets so that remote workers can communicate with – and feel connected to – their colleagues, wherever they’re working.

By making it possible to work whenever and wherever we choose, the digital workplace is ending the tyranny of the daily commute. And all while making our businesses more productive, and more profitable.

Today’s technology enables us to do business the way we’ve been reimagining it for decades; enabling people to work more flexibly in ways that benefit employees, and the bottom line.

Introducing 300 Seconds: a series of talks by women, for everyone

April 26, 2013

In the weeks since I blogged about the lack of diversity at tech events, the debate about women speakers has continued, with TechCrunch’s Disrupt NY attracting criticism recently for its overwhelmingly male speaker bill.

We held a positive and popular session on the issue at UKGovCamp (kindly liveblogged by Alex Blandford), and a couple of weeks ago Teacamp was devoted to Digital Women – their most attended event to date, with more than 100 people coming along (see this excellent write-up from Martin Belam).

At both of these sessions, the focus turned toward what positive, practical steps we can all take to raise the profile of women in digital, build leadership skills and increase the diversity of voices and experience in our industry debate.

One such initiative is The Women’s Room, an online database of female experts willing to give media interviews, founded after the Today Programme twice interviewed men about women’s issues, claiming they hadn’t been able to find any female experts. This has quickly grown to list over 2,000 qualified and experienced women from a wide range of fields.

After UKGovCamp, my favourite digital divas and I got together  to discuss what practical steps we can take. As we see it, two of the biggest barriers to women speaking at conferences are a lack of confidence or experience, and that conference organisers naturally look to those who have a track record of speaking at previous events. So we hit upon an idea which will tackle both of these.

Screen Shot 2013-04-11 at 15.25.46Introducing 300 Seconds, a new series of lightning talks that are interesting… but short. Our aim is to hear more about the personal and professional passions of our peers in the digital community. Be inspired. Learn something new. Meet. Chat. Engage.

Standing up in front of strangers and talking for half an hour can be daunting. But 300 seconds, well that’s not so bad, is it? If you aren’t used to standing up in front of people, it’s a great way to practice your presentation skills in a safe and friendly environment.

300 Seconds could also be the place to test out a new presentation you are working on. Maybe you do this all the time, but want to tell people about something new or exciting, or a new angle on a familiar topic.

We launched 300 Seconds less than two weeks ago, and have been overwhelmed by the response . The 50 attendee tickets and 12 speaker slots were snapped up within days, and we now have a waiting list of people who’d like to attend.

We want the first event to be a success, so we’re looking for a larger venue which will allow us to open the event up to more people. Can you help? Do get in touch if you can.

We’re already looking at holding further events. If you’d like to help out (with your skills, contacts, sponsorship, or venues), let us know. If you’d like to speak at a future event, or hold your own 300 Seconds event in your region, look out for details and registration on

My half marathon experiment: an update

March 19, 2013


Last week I asked the people of the internet if they could help me run the Reading Half Marathon in under two hours.

You’re all wondering how it went, right?

While I didn’t quite make my target, I did make it round (see left!), and I enjoyed my little experiment in wearable tech and social media.

Take a look at the Storify I’ve put together.

My half marathon experiment

March 15, 2013

The Pebble watch

This weekend I am running the Reading Half Marathon for the second time.

Last year I did it in a relatively respectable 2:07, and this year – three kilos heavier but with a year’s more running experience under my belt and some helpful advice from my friend and colleague Keith – I’m aiming to get around in under two hours.

It’s not going to be easy – can you help me out with your words of encouragement and your dodgy taste in music?

Yes, I need your help. I recently received my long-awaited Pebble Smartwatch (pictured above). While the Runkeeper app isn’t yet available, this does mean I can control my music and read your tweets, right from my wrist.

So, in a possibly foolhardy move, I’ve set up a collaborative Spotify playlist, and I’m asking you – the people of the internets – to pick my running tunes for me. I need some good running tunes that will motivate me to keep up the pace. What can you suggest?

The rules:

  1. I won’t look at the playlist before I start – I want it to be a surprise
  2. You have until 8am on Sunday to add your tunes – that’s when I’m downloading the tracks from Spotify (in case of streaming problems while running – I’ll ask someone else to do this to maintain the surprise element)
  3. I can skip if I’ve heard a tune before (henceforth known as the Rickroll Rule)
  4. If there’s a tune that doesn’t help me pick up/keep up the pace, or which I really hate (or both), I can skip past that too (the Hawkwind rule)

I also want your encouragement while I run. Tweet me/mock me @sharonodea and I’ll (hopefully) see it on my Pebble. I’ll start running at shortly after 10am on Sunday 17 March, and all being well will be over the finish line by 12.15.

Thanks! I’m still undecided about live-tweeting as I run (as I did for the Ealing Half), but I’ll let you know how it goes after the event.

Breaking the echo chamber: diversity (or the lack of it) at tech events

March 3, 2013

Late last year the thorny topic of diversity (or lack of it) at technology events was in the spotlight again after the British Ruby Conference (BritRuby) was cancelled following outcry about its all-male, all-white speaker line-up. Following the controversy many men pledged to boycott all-male panels at tech conferences. The idea proved controversial, with bloggers making impassioned arguments for doing so, and as many putting the case against.

A month ago, I popped along to altUKGovCamp (with UKGovcamp postponed due to snow, the brilliant Lloyd Davis and James Cattell swung into action and swiftly convened an impromptu geek meetup event. An un-unconference, if you will.) where this quickly became a hot topic for conversation. Our discussion covered the full gamut of issues, like:

  • Is the lack of diversity an issue?
  • Is it merely a symptom of the makeup of the industry?
  • If it is a problem, what can be done about it?

This proved a lively discussion which generated a range of practical ideas, particularly from the rather brilliant tech entrepreneur Mary McKenna, who noted many of the issues which make women reluctant to put themselves forward to speak – nervousness, undervaluing your own skills – are also those which make women less likely to negotiate a pay rise. She’s already blogged her tips for successfully negotiating a better pay deal, and I said I’d follow up with a post on diversity at tech events. So here we are.

all male panel

A typical panel at a tech conference

Diversity in tech is important

And not just because I’m a sandal-wearing, Guardian-reading leftie. This is a knowledge economy which increasingly relies on digital skills to create products and deliver services. We need more skilled tech people. The world particularly needs skilled creative tech people who can focus on the needs of the customer and find creative solutions. So we need diversity in skills, experience, knowledge and thought, at all levels. Diversity makes tech better.

But the tech industry is male dominated – aren’t conference speakers just a reflection of the audience?

Women are a minority in the tech world, it’s true, particularly at senior levels. But is that chicken or egg? The lack of visible, high-profile women at these events only serves to reinforce the idea that tech is a male preserve.

All-male panels aren’t just the preserve of the tech field either; following the BritRuby conference bloggers took aim at conference organisers in all manner of industries. It’s clear conferences have a problem, and not just in male-dominated industries.

Diversity isn’t just about women

The current debates focus on women, but the fact is panels are overwhelmingly white, and very rarely include people with disabilities.>

So diversity shouldn’t be seen as a ‘women’s issue’; it’s about ensuring conference panels reflect the audiences they’re talking to. Inviting speakers from a wide range of backgrounds might bring a different point of view to the conference, which helps making talks and panels a lot more interesting. It’s been long known that diverse teams in the workplace are more successful– is there any reason the same wouldn’t be true for conferences?

As Mary McKenna pointed out, promoting diversity isn’t just about doing the right thing; it’s also something which makes commercial sense.

So if it makes so much sense, why are there so few women speakers at tech conferences?

Good question. Here’s some of the reasons which have been suggested:

  • because of a lack of confidence
  • because they lack experience and are unsure how to write a good proposal
  • because they don’t see other people like them speaking, and feel uncomfortable being the only woman there
  • because they don’t think their work will support sending them to the conference
  • because they have childcare or other commitments that limit their ability to travel
  • “we’d love to have more women on the panel, but we haven’t had any submit proposals”
  • Because conference organisers – consciously or otherwise – seek out male speakers more actively than female ones
  • Selection committees may be biased against female speakers when selecting papers
  • There are fewer women in the field in the first place, so the lack of women speakers just reflects this

So what can be done about it?

The discussion at altUKGovCamp covered a wide range of ideas. Widespread threats to boycott all-male panels have certainly succeeded in drawing conference organisers’ attention to the issue. What’s clear is that conference organisers have a clear role to play in promoting diversity in their conference lineups.

Quotas provoked some fierce debate, with many suggesting this is tokenistic and ultimately devalues the contribution of women who are selected – suggesting perhaps that they weren’t selected on merit alone. Others felt a firm commitment to have, say, women make up a third of speakers signals a strong signal to those attending that diversity is a real issue. But it’s also bloody hard work.

Conferences are big business, and conference organisers are not charities. Those conference organisers who are making real efforts to recruit more diverse speakers are to be applauded for their efforts. But the fact is, it is a real effort – this blogpost from Courtney Stanton explaining how she got 50% female speakers at a video game conference illustrates it can be a real pain, and when you’ve got venues to book and tickets to sell, it’s a hassle one can easily do without.

If you’re organising a conference, here’s some advice:

  • Timing. if speaking at your conference is contingent on attending all three days (plus a half-day travel each way) you’re already making it more difficult for someone with caring responsibilities to attend.
  • Say it. Why not put a diversity statement in your call for submissions, making it clear your conference values diversity and actively welcomes papers from women and other under-represented groups. Let people know they are welcomed (here’s a great example from J Boye)
  • Be proactive. Check websites focusing on women speakers, get in touch with potential speakers who may be reluctant to put themselves forward, ask potential speakers to recommend others.

But making conferences more diverse takes both sides. Women need to put themselves forward, too. Here’s some tips for women who’d like to speak at a conference but aren’t sure about how:

  • JFDI. Speaking at a conference is a great way of boosting your professional profile.
  • Speaking in front of hundreds of people is a little scary. But you don’t have to start there. If you’re not sure, start by running a session at an unconference or doing a quick Ignite-style presentation to get a feel for it, and work up from there. Starting at a lower-key event gives you a chance to practice your material and get over your nerves
  • Don’t undersell yourself. It’s all too easy to fall prey to imposter syndrome and think you’re not good enough. Fight those negative feelings! What’s the worst that could happen?
  • Make some noise. If you’re asked to speak at a conference, don’t keep it to yourself; mention it on your blog, LinkedIn, Twitter, and so on. Once you have a track record as a speaker you’re more likely to be asked again.
  • Advocate for other women. If you’re asked to speak at a conference, ask the organisers if they’re interested in hearing from more women. Get them in touch with some of the brilliant and talented women you know.

Having a greater variety of voices, backgrounds and experiences represented makes conferences better. But for that to happen, organisers need to be more proactive about it, and more of us need to get over our nerves and put ourselves forward.

To that end, Mary McKenna and I will be holding a session at the rescheduled UKGovCamp next week for anyone who’d like to raise their professional profile by speaking at events but isn’t sure where to start. We’d love to see you there.If you’ve got any other thoughts or suggestions on diversity at tech conferences, let me know via the comments.

Creative Commons photo credit: miss604 on Flickr


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