Happy New Year.  Traditionally, this is a time of year for reflection, and I guess we should be grateful for any stimulus which makes us examine our lives.

I never met Jon-Marc Creaney.  He studied at the Mac, practiced in Lanarkshire and was around my age.  I only became aware of him thanks to the photos, blog and the comments he posted on the net under the nom-de-guerre “Scarpadog”.  It strikes me that he would have been a great guy to strike up a friendship with, as he had many interests and enthusiasms to share with the world.  But I’ll never have the chance to do that, because he passed away in 2011.

The continuing existence of Jon-Marc’s Flickr and his blog provide an insight into his hopes and aspirations, plus his fears and concerns as he came to terms with during his cancer treatment at the Beatson in Glasgow.  I was prompted to think about Scarpadog again by what a close friend is going through at the moment.  All the time you want to help, but you can never be sure if standing back and giving space, or reaching out to give them a hug, is the right thing to do.  Often the “right” thing to do changes from day to day.

Similarly, it’s difficult to write about someone who I never knew in person, and who wasn’t a public figure – but discovering the things which Jon-Marc left behind made me ponder about the nature of the internet and anonymity in the 21st century.  I knew Scarpadog through his work, and a shared interest in contemporary architecture and abandoned places.


It’s comforting to think that we’re known and remembered for life-affirming things: our passions for music, photography, travel and friends as well as the all-encompassing sense of shared humanity which Burns coined so neatly in “A Man’s a Man”.  I’m sure it’s heartening to his friends and family that Jon-Marc Creaney will be remembered for those positive things – and that strangers like me will come along occasionally and still be inspired by him.  The traces of Scarpadog which remain on the net are a tribute to him.

Hopefully some will also take heed of one of the final posts on Scarpadog’s blog, “I recalled lying on the sun-drenched slopes of Gran Paradiso feeling on top of the world, what a change in a year and I would say to everyone to grasp and enjoy these moments you get in life to the fullest – you never know when they can be taken away.” That Jon-Marc wrote this while he was seriously ill says a great deal about his self-awareness.  He was brave to share how he felt at that moment, and in a way because he posted it under the identity “Scarpadog” it somehow made what he said all the more universal.  Prompted by that, I’d like to consider how we communicate through the supposedly anonymous medium of the net.

A couple of years ago, Mark Zuckerberg got into a spat with internet hacktivists about the myriad of anonymous accounts that exist on Facebook.  Zuckerberg felt that folk who post anonymously portray a false and sometimes malicious reality – other figures on the internet such as “Moot” disagreed.  Moot said, “Zuckerberg equated anonymity with a lack of authenticity, almost a cowardice, and I would say that's fully wrong.  I think anonymity is authenticity, it allows you to share in a completely unvarnished, unfiltered, raw way and I think that's something that's extremely valuable." Moot is correct that throughout history, free speech has depended on anonymity.

In a political sense, anonymity acts as a shield from the tyranny of the majority.  As the American First Amendment has it, anonymity can protect unpopular people from retaliation, and their ideas from suppression at the hands of an intolerant mob.  Anonymous speech was used by the likes of Samuel Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain) to criticise common ignorance, and the Economist Magazine believes that keeping authorship anonymous moves the focus of discussion away from the speaker and on to the subject of the piece – which as it should be.  Sometimes authorship is vital: we like to get credit where it’s due for our work.  Sometimes anonymity is crucial: if that’s the guarantor of free speech and free expression then so be it.


On a personal level, if posting as “Scarpadog” enabled Jon-Marc to be more honest about his life and what he chose to share with the world, then that was the right thing to do.  It’s also in the original spirit of the internet, where we chose exactly what to share and what to keep private but increasingly, the decision on what to make public and what to keep private isn’t even ours to make.  Facebook and other sites manipulate your account and unless you keep checking your “privacy” settings, things are revealed to the world at large (and to their advertisers) which you never intended to share.

Ultimately you can’t guarantee the integrity of anything on the internet, but when folk like Jon-Marc post openly and honestly about themselves, that rings true despite the digital clutter.  We habitually confide in close friends because we trust them; yet occasionally we lay ourselves bare to strangers in the hope that something we thought or felt is transferrable and it may touch them.  That’s what paintings, novels and pieces of music can do – we don’t need to know who made them or why, in order to take something from them.

During the heyday of open architectural competitions in the first half of the 20th century, most entries were made anonymously – but rather than being allotted a number, each entry was identified by a chosen name.  Sometimes the name was a scrap of Latin or Greek, sometimes a nickname known only to the architect and their own circle.  Identifying yourself this way perhaps frees up creativity by allowing you to travel in a fresh direction, or to take a risk which you wouldn’t otherwise have taken for fear of harming your supposed reputation.  Thinking about yourself through an alter ego – whether Ziggy Stardust for our parents’ generation or the many noms-des-plumes which graffiti writers use – can provide a fresh outlet or some critical distance.

Of course we all have curiosity to satisfy and the internet has made it insatiable.  We peer into peoples’ lives through Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram and nowadays less so Bebo, DeviantArt or Friends Reunited.  Investigative reporters – when they’re not hacking into celebrities’ iPhones – can find out a great deal about folk quite legally using what we post in unguarded moments, even “public” comments on Facebook which we assumed were private.

One of Jon-Marc’s own buildings, at Wellwynd in Airdrie.

So you do have to filter what you post on the net.  You’d like to think that the millennials, as internet entrepreneurs characterise the generation now in their teens and early twenties which followed Douglas Coupland’s so-called Generation X, are more internet and privacy savvy than those of us who grew up with computers, but are old enough to remember when the net began. 

Well, perhaps.  In 2015, internet “content” is a feral thing: as soon as you post something it takes on a life of its own.  You may try to catch it and take it back – but as Mike Donnachie wrote elsewhere, the closest you’ll get is a glimpse of it howling at the moon from a distant mountaintop.  Perhaps that will discourage people from being authentic, and we’ll eventually become so guarded that life will be conducted through avatars and ciphers.

That would be a great loss.  Scarpadog carefully chose what he wanted to share, and that act of consideration was important because the internet has preserved Jon-Marc Creaney’s words and photos – just as a book, painting or piece of music lives on independently of the person who created it.

All photos are Jon-Marc Creaney’s, from his Flickr page - https://www.flickr.com/photos/scarpadog/

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