A doper, a reporter, and a question of ethics in sport and social media
In the last week of March, Cycling Tips journalist Peter Flax uncovered the curious case of one Mr. Nick Brandt-Sorenson– aka “Thorfinn-Sassquatch”– an L.A. cyclist pleading guilty to federal charges of selling illegal performance enhancing drugs. Were it not for Flax’s investigation, Brandt-Sorenson’s name and illicit activities would probably have passed quietly into the abyss of forgotten criminal court records. Instead, Flax turned Thorfinn-Sassquatch into something of a renewed headache for the endurance sports world’s largest social media website, Strava. That’s where Brandt-Sorenson’s alter-ego exists, and it has carved out a rather impressive virtual kingdom for itself. Flax found that Sassquatch has more than 1800 followers and holds the “King of the Mountain” (or KOM, as so many Strava members know it) trophy on hundreds of digitally earmarked stretches of road in the Los Angeles area. As far as the website’s data is concerned, Sassquatch is one of the fastest men on two wheels in L.A. And as far as many serious cyclists with Strava accounts are concerned, Strava is the final authority on the matter of who’s the fastest. Except now it’s all but a foregone conclusion that Sorenson/Sassquatch is an unrepentant doper who’s gotten his gains by the illest of methods. And this is where things get complicated.
Trading in KOModdities
It’s fair to ask up front if this is even a deal big enough worth consideration. Some athletes would debate that KOMs are even a thing. Some think they’re laughable. Some compete vigorously to retain their KOM titles and some have even died trying to achieve them. So whether they have value or not depends on who you ask. But if you ask the leadership at Strava, the website’s layout strongly suggests that KOMs do hold value. Recent achievements tracking how fast an athlete has completed local segments on rides are featured prominently on their profile overview page. There’s also a special tab that allows users to view all of the KOMs they hold. Whenever another local rider usurps one of those titles, Strava issues the previous record-holder an alert (known as “the dreaded ‘uh-oh!’ e-mail”) letting them know and encouraging them to “Get out there and take it back.” The company has assessed that enough people place enough value on KOMs that it’s an effective way to facilitate the score-keeping. It provides encouragement to keep riding and remain engaged in a healthy lifestyle. It also provides incentive to keep using the site, which is essential to its reputation as a viable social media platform. It’s estimated there are as many as 1.5 million active Strava accounts. So KOMs aren’t just a thing. They’re commodities that hold significant marketing value. Whatever your philosophy may be, the math says we already care about KOMs.
Sold a segment in Florida?
Like any other commodity, that real-dollar value attached to a KOM isn’t a fixed price. It fluctuates based on market demand. If the perks of Premium membership lose their appeal, then Strava loses revenue. Given that some of KOMs have been wrapped into that greater portfolio of benefits, it’s reasonable to assume Strava would defend the authenticity of segment times. But you’d be wrong. According to Strava’s Terms and Conditions:
Strava has no control over the truth, accuracy, quality, legality, or safety of postings made by users of the Site… Strava shall also have no responsibility to confirm or verify the qualifications, background, or abilities of users of the Site. You shall at all time exercise common sense and good judgment when dealing with any user of the Site
In other words, Strava isn’t just aware of people like Thorfinn-Sassquatch. It expected them. And it prepared for them by disavowing responsibility for policing them. “Yes, there are people who cheat on our website. We know that. And we’re not going out of our way to stop them. We take every trophy we hand out with a grain of salt. You should, too.”
TRS Triathlon contacted Backbone Media, Strava’s public relations firm, to request interviews with personnel at Strava who work to adjudicate disputes over KOMs or other achievements. We received this reply:
Thanks again for reaching out and thinking of Strava. I spoke with the team at Strava, and got a statement from Co-founder and CEO Mark Gainey:
“At Strava we strive to record accurate segment times and rely on our community to flag unsafe rides and mechanical cheating. We applaud those dedicated to fighting doping in sport. But we are not able to judge this very nuanced debate of who used PEDs, when and where they used them, and to fairly determine how that use improved times on one segment or another. Strava values sportsmanship and fair play, and we want members of our community to earn spots on the leaderboards through clean and safe competition. That’s why we created our Stand With Us code of conduct that highlights these values.”
That’s the exact same response Gainey offered Peter Flax in his original story on Sassquatch. Strava’s position is unwavering. Brandt-Sorenson will keep all his KOMs. So would any other doper under any but the most obviously incriminating conditions. While Strava encourages people not to cheat, it will neither take measures to stop them nor punish them when they are caught. If you get caught up in the pursuit for KOMs on Strava, you have no assurance that you’re getting beaten by clean competitors and no way to prove to others you won your own crown fair and square. The value of KOMs as a commodity is effectively destroyed. Under this system everyone loses, including Strava.
A no-win-no-win situation
Many people have taken to internet forums and comment threads to express outrage at the Thorfinn-Sassquatch affair. But among the reasons cyclists have blamed Strava for the situation, the biggest is that it’s easy. Strava is, at its foundation, a social media site. It’s governed by the peculiar and often confounding phenomena of social media. One such phenomena is people’s belief that an outcry made loud enough or by enough people will be sufficient to achieve their objectives. The principle works wonders in saving the occasional television show from cancellation or publicly shaming individuals for vulgar, racist or sexist behavior. It’s much less successful against oligarchs (#occupywallstreet) or Nigerian terrorists (#bringbackourgirls). When and how well the strategy works is a matter of expectations. Heather Taylor is the Managing Director of the content & strategy firm Red On Black Productions. She’s also developed social media strategies for the British Broadcasting Corporation and PR firms Weber Shandwick and Ogilvy. She says that there’s no clear bright line between crowd-sourced justice and vigilantism run amuck.
“The problem with social media at the moment is the mob mentality it’s creating. People want to be vindicated. They want the villains to be punished. But who is to say who the heroes and the villains are? People are fighting for just causes. But the lines are blurring, and everyone believes they are doing what’s right. We often aren’t presented with the other side of the argument, nor seek it out. As our world and feeds become more and more personalized and we’re served information based on an algorithm, we are only seeing what we “want” to see. And it’s causing people to feel that everyone agrees with them (even when they aren’t). We’re not getting to see the opposing views.”
As angry as cyclists might be at Strava for not punishing Brandt-Sorenson, the question remains whether the community’s outrage is justified. Could Strava realistically have done anything about it in the first place?
Lines in the sandstorm
Facebook has 1.23 billion active users. Twitter has about 305 million. And they traffic in a mind-boggling amount of cat videos, political opinions, and triathlon news stories on a daily basis. Yet Facebook and Twitter have task forces dedicated to eliminating accounts attached to the terrorist group ISIS. Since 2015, Twitter has zapped more than 125,000 such profiles. But there’s no universal code of social media rules. Facebook also makes a point to remove photos of breastfeeding mothers because it judges them to violate its rules about nudity. It doesn’t seem to have a problem with the official pages for Jenna Jameson or Pornhub, though. Twitter is cool with breasts in all formats. What’s considered taboo and what consequences are enacted on you for breaking it are totally up to the people running the websites.
“I think we forget, as users of these platforms, that there is no democracy to social media even though it feels that way,” says Taylor. “These platforms have owners, and the owners can do whatever they wish. We are playing in their house. And as we know from being kids: their house, their rules.”
People in glass houses must be careful with ban hammers
So even if a hundred thousand voices rose in protest to Thorfinn-Sassquatch, there’s no rule saying Strava has to listen. By the same token, they could just as easily change the rules to clean out his entire trophy case. Such a move would incur its own problems, however. Once a rule is made it must be obeyed by all parties, including the rule makers. Wipe Thorfinn-Sassquatch’s account clean based on the evidence at hand and you lower the bar for proving everyone’s guilt. How many legitimately reformed dopers could be clotheslined by it? Punishing the innocent along with the guilty is never an acceptable cost in the pursuit of justice. It’s an even less savory proposition for businesses that depend on membership participation to drive revenue. It’s doubtful that Mark Gainey likes having some probable dopers racking up KOMs on his site. But he’d like it less if thousands of legitimate users fled the site over arbitrary and unfair account cancellations. Strava is the house Gainey built (with partner Mike Horvath). It’s his right to remodel it as he chooses, but with that comes the responsibility of keeping the roof from falling on his head.
“They are in this weird black hole,” says Taylor. “But Strava has taken a stance, and it’s better for them to stick to that than change it. As long as they have been completely transparent, and continue to be very forthcoming on how they will continue to operate, this will fade away. But, I stress, they need to continue to be completely transparent. If they reverse their stance at a later date, this incident will be brought to light and may be used against them.”
Caution: Uneven pavement ahead
Even if it’s based on sound principle, Strava’s current approach is reminiscent of its past responses to another unfortunate trend. William Flint was the first documented case of a cycling death while pursuing a KOM on Strava in 2010. In 2012 Chris Bucchere pedaled through two stoplights and a stop sign in an effort to win a segment before he collided with 71-year-old pedestrian Sutchi Hui, who died as a result of his injuries. And in 2014 Jason Marshall struck and killed Jill Karlov while exceeding the posted speed limit in Central Park. He had posted new KOMs on Strava the previous day. Strava’s response has been consistent in each situation: We are a social media site. We do not promote or condone this behavior. People must take responsibility for their own actions.
The problem with a consistent message is that it gets a little old after a while. As the incidents pile up the arguments sound weaker. Even social media giants like Twitter and Facebook bend to their customers’ demands now and then. With segments, KOMs, and accomplishments, Strava has offered users a system. The company has also published a statement of what its community of users believes in. What happens when the evidence overwhelmingly indicates that Strava doesn’t deliver on its offer or that an unacceptable number of its users don’t actually uphold the community’s beliefs? It wouldn’t be the first time a social media company was challenged on its ethics, and many have survived worse PR scuffles. But while democracy may not exist in social media, capitalism does. At present, Strava is the premier social media application for endurance athletics. It’s by no means the only one. Reputation is the chief currency of social media, and Strava’s competitors may attempt to seize a bigger market share if the exchange rate continues to favor them. Compared to Strava’s 1.5 million accounts, Under Armour has more than 130 million users thanks to its collective acquisition of MyFitnessPal, MapMyFitness, and Endomondo. MapMyRide also offers KOM achievements as part of a more expanded award system, but has yet to be implicated in any egregious cycling behavior. Persistent grousing within the endurance community about Strava’s reputation could make other sites look more appealing.
Consistency matters, but so does adaptability. Thorfinn-Sassquatch represents a new problem for Strava, and likely one that will stay. For now the company is responding to it the same way it does the KOM-inspired fatalities. Whether these continued bumps in the road call for staying the course or swerving to avoid hazards, only time can tell.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Strava had prevented non-paying users from viewing their KOMs and only allowed Premium account holders to see them in their trophy case. It has been corrected here.