Published: January 13, 2009

Sincerely, Anonymous

Would Mary Ann Evans have been as successful had she not written under the name 'Mary Ann Evans'?Ever since the newfangled Internet machine was first applied to piping and drumming way back in 1994 with the (truly sordid) alt.rec.music.makers.bagpipers chat group, our little world has been frequently miffed and confused about those who speak publicly, but wish to remain anonymous. Forums, blogs and an online magazine like pipes|drums give everyone the power to speak their opinion, and choose whether or not they want their true identity to be attached.

It frequently frustrates those with a high sense of integrity. Pipers and drummers who have the courage and conviction to put their real name to what they say in public often get into high dudgeon when they read the pointed and controversial – and often just simply muck-raking – opinions of posters using pseudonyms.

Of course, the piping and drumming world is not unique in this regard. Have you ever visited a major newspaper’s online edition? Take the New York Times, Scotsman or Evening Times, for examples. Readers are allowed to post anonymously, and even publications considered the most reputable in the world welcome dissent, agreement and everything in between, provided it’s fair comment and not slanderous or libelous.

pipes|drums takes that stance. The thinking is that it’s far better to open the discussion to all – anonymous or not – than to have no discussion, which, as the major dailies understand, is pretty much what would happen if every reader’s identity had to be verified and listed before anything was posted. Web 2.0 discussion is not like traditional letters-to-the-editor, which are closely vetted for authorship and veracity. That’s not a conversation at all, but instead just a one-time rejoinder.

The piping and drumming world is far more open today than it was 15 years ago. Results are openly debated, competition requirements are openly critiqued, the moves of associations are subject to open criticism. We discuss musical issues like never before. While a group of judges may condone a new musical approach, the players of the world may hate it, and vice versa. This lively and open dialog and debate simply did not happen before 1994.

There are still some places where they still seem to try to sweep sensitive matters and clear injustices under the rug, but that approach will eventually catch up to them when they discover their membership has turned on them, and it will be ugly.

As long as it’s not slanderous and is “fair comment” (don’t ask me to define it; I just know it when I see it), then opinions should be welcomed, whether it’s on the Internet or at an AGM. It’s understandable that we pipers and drummers are reluctant to put our names to strong or unpopular opinions. We compete in subjective competition system built on years of slow-moving musical custom and tradition. Rocking the boat may alienate those in charge (executives, board-members, judges, teachers, stewards . . .) who usually don’t like to be criticized, and who theoretically have the power to put down any uprisings they deem not in their interest. And some still do.

Fortunately, even with the preponderance of anonymous commenters on the Net, there are always the true courageous leaders with a conviction to confront the piping and drumming world’s “authorities” and its traditions and mores, unafraid of being identified. It takes integrity and guts to take on the establishment, especially one that’s so entrenched and used to being able to control the players, whether it’s through threat of disqualification, a clipboard hammering or simply creating a century of piobaireachd settings that everyone has to play just so if they want to get a prize.

That sort of abuse of power is unfortunately how the competitive piping and drumming world often operated for its first 200 or so years – until the Internet came along, giving power to everyone and anyone to espouse boat-rocking opinion without revealing their identity.

Similarly, from time to time pipes|drums is criticized for using sources who speak on condition of anonymity. This is a long-established practice still used by any credible publication. Essentially, an anonymous source enables a publication to include sensitive third-party opinion that otherwise might get someone into trouble, whether it’s with a criminal, a business, a political regime . . . or a pipe band association. Readers of The Times, to use that example again, trust the paper’s long-established credibility and integrity to report honestly. When the publication uses an anonymous source, readers have faith in the journalist’s professionalism to use that content truthfully.

pipes|drums often puts together predictions and honours. It started years ago as fun and innocuous features, but some people apparently take them extremely seriously. I guess that’s a credit to the publication’s integrity, or perhaps people are just so bored that they have nothing else to talk about. Rather than me single-mindedly choosing these things, I far prefer to stay out of them altogether. So, the approach has been to assemble panels of experts from various areas, and invite them to vote and contribute their thoughts, with assured anonymity.

I would love to announce grand panels of named experts, just as I would love everyone to put their true name to their comments on pipes|drums, and will try to convince people to agree to that when the time comes.  But, unfortunately, my feeling is that the real, subjective world of competitive piping and drumming still makes it impossible to require the inclusion of true identities and still have an honest dialog.

I’m sure some who pine for the old days would prefer no dialog at all to allowing anonymous contributors. Again, looking back at the sweep-it-under-the-rug mentality that pervaded the pre-Internet era, we are far better off to allow intelligent pipers and drummers to provide their intelligent and fair comments¬†anonymously than to say nothing.

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