Open practice? Reflections from the towpath.

This is a story about open practice, that I have told before, but is worth telling again. Not least because you can take from it what you will and add what layers and meanings you need to. This is what I have taken, 5 years later, from it.

May 2011. I am on Holiday, I am on our boat, the NB Haversham cruising the delightful backwater canals of the Black Country. If you are new to the idea canal boats, they are long narrowboats that were made originally for hauling cargo on canals. Ours is about 60ft long and 6ft 10inches wide. What’s life like on a boat? To misquote Ferris Beuller “Life doesn’t move pretty fast, and you have all the time in the world to look up and look around.” Life moves at 3mph on a canal, not even at a brisk walking pace.

Canal boat in a lock
“Locking up” into Birmingham

Of course, in this case that was part of the problem, and where open practice comes into the story.

We’d arranged to meet a friend from work; where and when? Well on a canal you can name a place and time, as long as it is “somewhere near that pub, and sometime after 11am, and probably before dark”.

We’d been communicating using twitter, openly and geolocating our tweets.

April 2011 tweet

simon April 2011

After coming aboard, we continued tweeting images etc to the world as we enjoyed a lazy cruise into the centre of picturesque Birmingham.

Canal Junction
For those of you who don’t know. This is under Spaghetti Junction. The first turning takes you to Oxford, the second turning toward Worcester, straight on – into the city centre.

Eventually we moored up, decided where we would go for dinner, and settled down for another narrowboat tradition; the Gin and Tonic. At this point we have to add some anonymity the story.

As we sat and sipped gin, we were boarded. Not recognising the person, we stood and said “Hi?” (typically English). And he put out his hand first to me and said “Hi Lawrie” and then to Simon with a “Hi Simon”. He introduced himself, and whilst I knew the name from the internets, I genuinely have no recollection of meeting him before. He clearly knew both Simon and I, he clearly knew our work and our colleagues.

After awkward silences and introductions to our partners, he invited himself along for dinner. Which was an entertaining affair in an Indian restaurant, where Simon’s partner condescended to the waiter and added her own Tabasco sauce to their hottest dish. Our guest spent the evening telling us of his latest exploits in America, including the line “I only date American Librarians” and spent a lot of time showing and playing on the, then new, Nintendo 3DS he’d bought whilst in the US. At the end of the meal, and after him being affronted that we weren’t buying dinner on expenses (we were on holiday!) he left.

Walking back to the boat, either I said to Simon, or Simon said to me “your friend is a bit odd”. At which point, and by now you have already guessed, we realised that neither one of us actually knew him other than in a “I may have seen him online kind of way”.

So What?

It’s the kind of thing that happens these days right? Maybe. And it is a good story, and probably seen differently from different perspectives.

This was very much a social interaction, but I wonder how many interactions like this occur in a professional context. Have you had people embed themselves in your work without your conscious invitation? Was it positive or negative?

I was struck by a line from @tressiemcphd in her post Outgrowing your social media

“Those who know me across both contexts generally attest to the fact that my online self is very much an accurate reflection of my “real” self, for better or for worse.”

I have long been an advocate for being open and honest especially regards to Twitter, and I aim for exactly what @tressiemcphd said – on twitter this is me, for better or for worse.

But I am speaking from a privileged position, I am a white middle class male. Society protects mostly me. And I would say that whilst the person who came on board was inoffensive (although playing with a handheld game at dinner should be punishable), what if we were two female colleagues, and we were alone, and the person was not someone who we knew, but had elicited information from our profiles? Or what if I was naive as a user and what I put online was used to defraud me?

There is a role for curating your online self, a conscious curation, it does not have to impact on who you are as a person, your authenticity or credibility, but we should be mindful.

Have I changed anything?

Yes. If you board the Haversham whilst I am in command, and without a prior invitation and explicit permission I will consider it an act of piracy and deal it with it in a very sharp and pointed way. Possibly involving something sharp and pointy.

But what about changes to my open practice, not so much, I feel I am able to be who I am online, politics, hobbies, campaigning and work are all meshed into my being. But what I am trying to change is my attitude toward those who feel they need to curate, recognising that I am privileged to be able to be who I am with little fear of consequence other than occasional trolling.

@tressiemcphd also made some points about devoicing people in that post, and that speaks to me and this post as well. I have in the past, hidden, muted, blocked people who follow me. I am privileged to be able to deal with those people in a more mature way, and have started to unhide, unmute and unblock. But I am lucky.

on a canal
Leaving Birmingham with @simonhodson99 at the tiller



  1. This story (which I know is true) always made me nervous, for the reasons you suggest. There are only a few times I’ve needed to protect myself from online (or offline) behaviours but it means I do recognise other’s self-protection measures.
    Back in the early 2000s I helped organised an online conference. One speaker liked to be known only by his last name but he later explained to me that I blew his cover by listing his full name online. That enabled his overseas estranged family to trace him. Luckily it was a positive reunion, but it taught me an early lesson about the fragile nature of privacy in a connected world.

  2. I remember how, throughout the 90s, when the range and number of online communities and networks started to grow, I tried to maintain separate personae on each network, even down to the level of different usernames on different bulletin boards. I can remember quite clearly when I decided to stop doing that, but I can’t remember why I thought it sensible to maintain different usernames, personae etc. in the first place. I think it just seemed like what one was supposed to do – and perhaps I was more the digital “visitor”, rather than “resident”in those days. I wonder if perhaps it was the transition from visitor to resident that triggered this change in my approach to it all.

    Nowadays, to a large extent and insofar as this is actually meaningful, I am just “myself” in social networks and the like – any difference in behaviour will be largely unconscious.

    I do wonder if I may come to regret the degree to which I do not bother to protect my privacy. Even now, there have been people who have ‘found’ me on Facebook, where I might have rather that they hadn’t. But that’s a small inconvenience to me – like you, I appreciate that I have a certain privileged position which allows me to do this. I also have a degree of confidence with these things which not everyone shares.

    Anyway – it’s interesting to reflect on these things – especially since we can remember the beginnings of much it 😉

    1. Back in the 1990s when I started doing this interwebs tubes business (well apart from a foray on Janet and e-mail in the 1980s) it appeared to be the done thing not to use your real name. I really started to engage with the web in 1997 and back then the default behaviour was to be mainly anonymous or if you wanted to be identified, you used a “handle”. I remember on the ISP usenet group I frequented I had an identity, but you wouldn’t have known it was me. However by the mid-noughties engaging with a professional body of learning technology professionals, I started to move from anonymity to using my actual name, James Clay. This really started with tools such as Twitter, Flickr and even Facebook! However one core tool for me was using WordPress for my e-learning blog and actually wanting to raise my profile in the learning technology community. When writing on my blog I started to use my real name. Since then I have been “James Clay” on the web and social media.

      There is an essence of “celebrity” when being open on Twitter as well as being “on stage” in an arena such as the one we work in, even if it is a narrow field. As a result there are people who genuinely believe that they know us and that we know them, possibly through some interaction in the past, a question during a workshop, or a conversation on twitter. I know I still feel a little unnerved when someone comes up to me at a conference and says hello, I follow you on Twitter. Why I don’t know as I actively curate people to follow me on Twitter by being open and publishing openly. But like Lawie and Paul I am in a privileged position.

  3. This is a good and entertaining, but also serious point-raising post. A bit of irony; earlier that very same day I barged (get it?) onto your boat, I had to go visit the police as someone had used my identity, from details it looks like they had gotten from social media, to take out a loan in my name. I’ve been much more careful ever since about putting certain specific attributes of myself online.

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