Of all the potential sources of blame for last week’s riots (and there have been many, from our consumerist society to the weather being too warm), the one that’s irked me the most is social media. Part of the “Cameron’s law” plans currently being considered is the government’s right to block and shut down mobile messaging and social networks in a bid to curb troublemakers from organising riots.
As soon as it was mentioned that many rioters were using BBM to co-ordinate their attacks, the technologically ignorant grasped it like it was the official Axis of Evil palm pilot. “What IS this curious magic, which goes only by mysterious initials? Why do not they text? Does it stand for ‘Blaggards, Ballyhoo and Mischief?”
It doesn’t. It’s not even a “social network”. It’s a free instant messenger. It’s the exact same things as texting, except you pretend you’re having “a conversation” and you don’t have to put kisses on the end of anything. That’s it. As a Blackberry owner (I know, I know, the shame) I use it regularly for exchanges about what time to meet at the pub, whether or not there’s any walnut oil left in M&S, and “ooh it’s raining in NW1 but not in N10! Isn’t weather weird and London big?”. Using it has never inspired me to participate in acts of public violence, or even made me think “coo, organising an act of mass violence would be far easier on this service than through less specialised means of communication, like texting. Or email.” It really hasn’t.
Why we shouldn’t blame social media.
1. If BBM is to blame, then are mobile phones? How about just phones altogether? Should Alexander Graham Bell be hauled up from beyond the grave to defend himself? There were riots before phones, we should remember. How the practicalities of organising mass violence through smoke signals or messenger pigeon would work in Hackney I’m not sure, but people would find a way.
2. Maybe we should remind ourselves here that when cinema was first invented people thought it was immoral, because you sat in the dark with strangers. They could steal your popcorn or stroke your hair in an over-familiar manner! Perish the thought! Of course, it’s natural for the advent of any new technology to send a ripple of mass hysteria through the ranks, but you’d think by now we would have learned.
3. The benefits far outweigh the damage. As someone on Twitter succinctly put it (I can’t remember who or I’d credit them), there were riots before social media. But there weren’t clean-up operations organised so quickly, and reaching so far. Watching everyone march out across the internet, in such British fashion, brooms in hand, going “RIGHT, let’s tidy up this mess, collect clothes for the newly-homeless, then have a cup of tea” was about as heartwarming as it gets.