Theres 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. Theyll be discussing the whys and wherefores, using phrases like moral decline and broken society for a long while yet, but one 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 dynamic, ever 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. View full article

England has had riots before, but to my knowledge never so extensive or with the ability to spread so quickly. Its clear that social messaging services were vital in helping the rioters rally supporters much more quickly than in previous disturbances, but 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. Twitter and Facebook are usually very public social broadcast mechanisms, but BBM is much more covert, allowing users to send messages to many of their friends instantly for free and without being viewed by the general public.

In her article from The Observer, re-published in The Guardian on the weekend, Juliette Garside looks into the decisions policymakers are being forced to make regarding the extent to which authorities could be allowed to interfere with communication networks in the wake of the riots, ranging from simply closing-down networks to investigating more intelligent measures such as ‘Cell Congestion Monitoring’ (installed systems networks have to detect crowds, usually in order to manage capacity).

As news breaks that the three major social networks used during the riots have been called to the UK Home Office to discuss their roles and Facebook users begin to be arrested for inciting riots via the social media service, it’s going to be interesting to see what legislative decisions are made in the coming months.

Let’s not also forget in all this, that it’s the power of these services, particularly Twitter and Facebook that was so useful in garnering support for the clean up effort in the days following the riots too, highlighting the real strength of these services for positive effect in times of need.

Regardless of the exact services used, its an interesting subject and something made possible only by the availability of new technologies. Upon hearing news of the events earlier 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 exactly the same, its still quite scary…