Certain sections of the UK media have been ascribing some blame for the riots in London to Twitter. Aside from denying that riots such as this happened long before the invention of such social media tools, such statements also show a lack of real understanding of how social media tools like Twitter are used by people, and when they are less useful.
There are many things that Twitter can and is doing during the riots, but there are also many things that it can’t and isn’t.
Twitter IS NOT a good place to get a clear view of what is really happening
Twitter is flooded with conversations about the riots in London and across the UK. Most of these are accurate (at least as far as the original author is concerned) but many are rumour and speculation. Just because it is on Twitter does not make it true and there can be a danger to judge accuracy on the basis of the number of retweets. Over the last few days we have seen rumours of riots and looting on streets that were actually calm. It is difficult to separate truth from rumour on Twitter and this makes is a difficult place to understand what is really happening across London.
Twitter IS a good place to find people in your neighbourhood
Twitter is a great place to find like minded people. And during the London Riots we have seen it used as a real tool for people to find others in their community. Whilst it is not great for getting a view on what is happening across London it can be good for finding like minded people in your area. Rather than looking for people talking about #LondonRiots, many Twitter users have taken the opportunity to find people talking about the area they live or work in and then follow those they begin to trust. Messaging them to find out what the situation is nearby and sharing information and advice for your local community.
Twitter IS NOT a good place to get rational, reasoned argument
Twitter does not suit rational, balanced argument. It is short-form communication that typically comments (briefly) on an event or describes what is happening. It is actually quite difficult to present a rounded viewpoint or to expand on what you say. This can make it both a difficult place to explain what you say, but also it attracts simple statements that can often be inflammatory (even if they weren’t intended to be so). For real evaluation and discussion about what it is happening, it is best to look elsewhere – blogs, forums, Google+. Twitter is suited to short-form statements about what is happening.
Twitter IS a good place to find evidence and testimony
This does, however, make Twitter a great place for potential intelligence, evidence and reporting about what happened. The pictures people take and share. The comments people leave (and where they are when they leave them). These statements about what is happening from ‘spectators’ of the events could be a useful source of information for the Police and others. The number of people capturing and describing events is a potentially positive role that Twitter can play – recording events and storing evidence.
Twitter IS NOT a good place to organise a riot
There has been some discussion that Twitter caused the riots and that they were planned there. This seems unlikely. Twitter is a public social network where (except for the minority with locked accounts) anybody can see what you say even if they don’t follow you. Your contacts on Twitter tend to be quite weak social links – people you may share one interest with, or who may have said something you found useful once in the past. This is not the place to plan and organise riots with groups of other people you know and trust. You are more likely to do that elsewhere – in a private place (where nobody can look at what you are saying) and in a network with strong social links. This is why group messaging services, notably Blackberry’s BBM, are more likely to have been used. Closed private networks with people you have stronger social links with are much more useful for organising any kind of secret get together, including a riot.
Twitter IS a good place to organise a cleanup
But what about where you do want everybody to know what you’re doing? And you do want even your weak social links to see and potentially share what you are saying. In this case, Twitter is useful and we’ve seen that most notably with the @riotcleanup Twitter account and others that have encouraged people to descend on parts of London to help clean up the morning after rioting. Whilst some events (ones you want to organise in private) are best kept to closed networks, others (those you want everybody to know about) are best in public ones. Twitter is great for organising a cleanup and for letting people know that this is happening. Less good for organising a riot.
Image by hozinja via Flickr