I’m not going to try and comment on what has been happening in London and beyond over the last few nights – I don’t feel qualified apart from to express the outrage and sympathy that so many people thankfully share – I do want to add my view though as I think the wider the debate about the causes and solutions the better. The first step to a good solution is a good analysis of the problem – and the idea that social media is part of the problem that seems to be the implication from the debate in the Commons yesterday is very flawed – I want to explore that here.
There is no single answer to a situation like this and one of the things that strikes me about the news coverage is the way in which commentators are grasping at ideas in order to try and create some kind of understandable narrative – each expert being convinced that its their field that has the answer but not being able to fit their story neatly on the situation. I think what is being revealed is a narrative of two completely distinct cultures within the same society. The point is the fundamental lack of understanding between the two groups – and if you listen to the youth and community workers who are being interviewed this is the most important point they are trying to get across – we can’t possibly solve anything without a more real understanding of the other group’s position.
If we are going to use the frankly insulting metaphor of a sick society then lets at least use it properly. These riots have been a symptom and not a cause and medicine moved on from just treating symptoms a 100 years ago – you would hope that politics could reflect a similar modernity. People need to be punished, symptoms need to be treated, but we also need to change the context and remove the causes.
You always view these events through the lens of your own preoccupations and experience and so hopefully its not surprising that I am looking at this with respect to the networks and the network behaviours that it reflects. This analysis is one contribution as to how we address the issues that the last few days have revealed. That’s right – revealed and not created – these issues were there already but have been made unavoidable with the speed and violence with which they erupted.
I think what is needed at this point is not for all of use to speak from our individual perspectives but that different experts and people with real knowledge of real communities can come together and create some solutions that don’t just work well when we say them in the media but work well on the messy, difficult human ground within communities.
Network one of two: Technology
Its been much quoted in the media that the rioters and looters have been using the Blackberry instant message network – BBM – to communicate and organise. This is significant because the BBM is a technologically closed space. The security on the network is excellent and has been built with an assumption of security and privacy which is a marked contrast social media tools like twitter which have a diametrically opposite set of design assumptions. It was built with enterprise business use in mind – bankers with secrets – and so its designed to keep messages within the audience you send them to. This has been of major concern to governments in the middle east and you may recall the reports about Saudi Arabia and India wanting some assurances that they could extract messages and intercept messages before Blackberry’s owner RIM got permission to trade there.
Blackberrys have been the dominant handset in the 16-24 demographic for a while now with 96% of 16-24 year olds having a mobile, half of them having a smartphone and 37% of those smartphones users having a Blackberry (Source: Ofcom 2011 Marketing report). Overall take up of mobiles is similar in the 25-34 and 35-54 groups but with a lower percentage of smartphones.
There are a number of reasons for this and the main one is probably the fact that the Blackberry was one of the first smartphones to offer a pay as you go option – but its difficult to imagine that RIM expected this to be the outcome – its an odd brand situation to say the least with the devices being used at the top and the bottom of the market (in terms of spend). The thing to note however is that its unlikely that, given phone replacement cycles, this will change over the next few years without intervention. And the implication of those same phone replacement cycles will be that parents and grandparents will then get these handsets handed on.
The fact that these message exchanges are free at point of use means that they are obviously going to be a channel of choice for a young and low income group. We know this is also a demographic that is less likely to have access to the internet in other ways and so we have to accept that this closed communication circuit may be in place for some time.
Network two of two: Social
Why does this matter? Apart from the obvious implications of an anti-social crowd being able to mobilise quickly and secretly which is probably enough of a concern to anyone trying to police increasingly agile crowds of course….lets not forget there is a practical problem here as well and acknowledge this difficulty.
All of the work by practitioners around the use of social media for community engagement- and much of the optimism that many of us feel – is really predicated on the open and collaborative culture of the social web. Where we talk about the use of mobiles it around the use of mobiles for internet access and SMS. We know that young people engage with Facebook and other tools from their phones and we see this as a route to engage with them in turn.
The use of BBM explodes this paradigm – the culture is not the same and the network is closed and not open – the optimism that many of us feel with respect to the possibilities of the social web to engage people in constructive and deliberative debate is less founded with this technology.
The strength of weak ties
Cultures will always form sub-cultures and groups need and should have some degree of privacy. I think the issue here is more that there is no connection with the BBM using younger demographic and a great portion of society. We really have no idea of how this sub-culture functions online and we have few points of connection to it – to the extent that it was notable that a Guardian journalist actually made any connections at all.
Contrast this with way in which twitter was being used to organise the cleanup and to dispel rumours. Even when you step out of the cosy intellectual, middle class bubble that many of us live in online there was outrage and anger about the rioting. We can’t forget about the idiots who posted their loot on their Facebook pages – but we can note that this is also perhaps a cultural stupidity with them being more used to the closed systems of the BBM and text messages.
The problem here is so obviously not the technology – to say so is to take a technological determinist view of the world that ignores the fact that we have been on a path to a more networked society every since the telegraph enabled us to reach across the planet. You can no more remove the networked behaviour at this point than you can stop people talking on street corners (or are we planning that?). Yes – shutting down technologies will slow the spread of information – but that means good and bad information. It would of course make us new friends in the form of all kinds of oppressive regimes who we have been criticising for just these reasons. The revolution in the middle east has not been tweeted but it has surely been helped (read Gladwell and Shirky on this).
We need a culture of openness and we need to make connections across all of the networks in our society if we are going to build communities to live in that we can trust and feel safe in. Networks are not the only analysis here but one small way forward could be to consider how we become part, or at least known to, the networks and groups that have been organising violence and looting over the last few nights.
This isn’t an online issue – the technology is not the problem – but the underlying lack of connection between two segments of society which is illuminated by the technology is I think a root cause and could give us an entry point to try and make things better.