England riots

August 23rd, 2011

There’s been plenty written on the riots that occurred during August 2011, involving looting and arson attacks in several London districts before spreading across the UK. They’ll be discussing the whys and wherefores, using phrases like ‘moral decline’ and ‘broken society’ for a long while yet, but the thing I found particularly interesting was the role that mobile devices and, in particular, social media and the BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) service played in facilitating the ‘flash-mob’ style gatherings. These technologies allowed large groups to target particular areas and mobilise much more quickly than ever before possible, leaving the police little chance to keep up with the ever dynamic, growing mob.

After the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and this summer's looting in England, there is no longer any doubt about the speed with which large crowds can be mobilised on to the streets. As flash-mobbing morphs into flash-robbing, the attention of British authorities is turning to the mobile phones and social media that empower everything from benign groups dancing in railway stations to the vandalism of entire high streets. Juliette Garside, The Observer, Sunday 21 August 2011 http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2011/aug/21/riots-throw-telecoms-firms-social-media-controls-into-spotlight

England has had riots before, but to my knowledge, never so extensive or that were able to spread so quickly. It’s clear that the advent of these new social messaging services were vital in helping the rioters rally supporters much more quickly than in previous disturbances, and while early reports suggested Twitter and Facebook played huge roles, it seems that it was actually BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) that was more useful to the perpetrators. While Twitter and Facebook are very public social broadcast mechanisms, BBM is much more covert, allowing users to send messages to many of their friends instantly for free and without being publicly viewable. Most Twitter and Facebook messages, in contrast, are usually publicly available and in the case of Twitter, limited to 140 text characters too. It’s for these reasons that Twitter and Facebook were so useful in garnering support for the clean up effort in the days following the riots, highlighting the real strength of these services.

Regardless of the exact services used, it’s an interesting subject and something made possible only by the availability of new technologies. Upon hearing news of the events in August this year I was immediately reminded of the talk given at ignite 2 in London last year, Flash Mob Gone Wrong by Tom Scott. While not the same, it’s still quite scary really...

Link to ignite talk. http://youtu.be/RyMdOT8YJgY