In Microtones, our newsletter-first column.
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MICROTONES by Mark Riechers, digital director
If you’re a sensible person and have managed to tune out the chattering void of the broader social networks of the world, odds are pretty good you find your digital connection in group texts, occasionally remembering there are local people shouting at each other on NextDoor, or perhaps a Facebook group built around a common interest. One of mine happens to be a group full of Madison-area bike enthusiasts. And like most hyper-specific corners of the web, a portion of the folks there have been radicalized.
I mean this in the kindest way possible. It’s mostly just a group of people really passionate about bicycles and bicycle rights in Madison. But it is most definitely an echo chamber wherein the core belief system leans more toward “banish all cars to the interstate” than “bike paths are neat.” It’s the sort of environment primed for handlebar-mounted pitchforks when something anti-bike spills into the group.
Such as this: over the weekend, a member of the group got into an argument with a delivery driver for Batch Bakehouse (this turned out to be co-owner Zach Johnson). Essentially, a member of the group was biking on the bike boulevard on East Mifflin Street. Drivers on bike boulevards are supposed to drive below the speed limit when bikers are present, and only pass when they can safely use the adjacent lane; the Batch delivery van passed this biker uncomfortably close and at a high speed. Thankfully, he wasn’t hurt.
But it was jarring enough for him to follow the driver back to the bakery, where he tried to have words with the manager about what happened. Johnson apparently pulled that old “well actually I am the manager” line on him. The biker filed a police report and vented his frustration to the group.
Here’s where things went off the rails.
Immediately, bikers in the group started bombarding the Batch Facebook page with negative messages and reviews. I’m going to admit that my gut reaction was to send a message too—a private one, just expressing my disappointment. Susan Detering, another co-owner at the bakery, actually responded to me (and dozens of others, by the look of things) apologizing and promising to investigate what happened. While she conferred with her business partner on what had happened and what to say about it publicly, more and more members of the group piled on with rage both at the situation, the driver, and the bakery. For hours.
Now, I’m clearly not above this myself because I was part of the hive. The danger cyclists face on streets across the country is still unacceptable and still claiming lives. But frankly, Susan and the Batch folks didn’t owe me or any of these people anything. Johnson, the reckless driver, owed the biker an apology. It’s reasonable to want to hold someone accountable for disrespectful and possibly dangerous behavior—but that’s about it. Demanding some sort of public reparations for a road rage incident is a bit unreasonable.
It was an ugly moment in local internet. I’m embarrassed to have been part of it, even in a small way. (I wrote Susan encouraging her to educate Zach on how bike boulevards work, and wishing her luck.)
It’s very, very easy to put together a like-minded mob of people online, especially since every tool at our disposal is optimized around outrage. But if we’re ever going to get anything different—anything less, uh, soul-eroding—from our time online, we have to at least start changing how we handle incidents like this when they involve people and businesses we can actually engage with in person.
Piling on the suddenly-evil local business is becoming the small business story of our time. Maybe if we take a long, hard look at ourselves, we can give up ugly episodes like these. Maybe we can turn a corner toward some newer, kinder, gentler online mob behavior.
Steven Slack writes that disabled State Rep. Jimmy Anderson’s fight for basic rights is all too familiar.
Evan Woodward delves into the history of Even Furthur, an influential Wisconsin rave that marks its 25th anniversary this weekend.
It’s time to stick up for “Nails’ Tales.”
Supporters of Freedom, Inc. explain why the local non-profit is necessary.
On the podcast, Henry Solo interviews Jessica Williams of the Free The 350 Bail Fund.
Elsewhere on the Madison internet: Madison band Disq made a Spotify playlist. Crucible announces an August 18 fundraiser for immigrant children’s legal defense. The Capital Times reports on the survival of discount theater Market Square. Richard Buckner announces a September 12 show at Kiki’s House of Righteous Music,
This week’s Madison calendar: SistaStrings at the Madison New Music Festival. Nate Gibson at BarleyPop Live. And more.
Upcoming Tone Madison Events!
Saturday, August 10: John Wiese, Erik Kramer, Jeremy Van Mill. Arts + Literature Laboratory, 7 p.m. (Tickets available online, no fee)
Wednesday, September 11: Avola, Elrond, Saint Saunter, Woodman/Earhart. Communication, 8 p.m.
September 14 and 15: Half-Stack Sessions and Tone Madison Stage at the 2019 Willy Street Fair.
September 20 through 22: Infamous Local Fest at The Winnebago and Communication.
December, date TBD: Tone Madison Best of 2019 Listening Party