As anyone connected to an information source knows, parts of London burned over the last few days. Scenes of looting and overwhelmed riot police have dominated the endless news loop. The talking heads on television don’t seem to know what to make of the chaos. There’s no consensus as to what the source of the problem is. People viewing the problem with a socioeconomic lens blame the austerity measures, some see racial undertones, while other misguided individuals blame social media. There are many ways to view the current state of unrest, but blaming social media is a bit far fetched. It’s the equivalent of baseball bat for breaking a window. A bat alone will not break anything. In the same sense, social networks are merely tools that we use to communicate in real time. What people choose to communicate is up to them. Social media as a channel is neutral and can be used for good, evil or annoyance in some cases.
The Internet and social networks are guilty of enhancing the ability and speed of one of the most fundamental human traits, the desire to socialize. Since the beginning of civilization, people have come together to discuss anything and everything. A word-of-mouth recommendation from a trusted source is still one of the most effective drivers of commerce today. The main difference between now and 2000 years ago is that a physical presence is no longer required to share information or to gather around an idea. Before media, the fastest way to spread information to a large group was to unite them into a single location and to provide them with information that they can pass on to others. You can imagine how some messages may have lost momentum or become warped beyond recognition. Today messages are repeated more frequently across vast distances, but that doesn’t mean they’re immune from the issues of the past.
Welcome to the hyper-connected world. A world where people and ideas can all be interconnected at lightning speed. You don’t even need to be digitally connected to be a part of zeitgeist. There’s a good chance that relevant information will find you through someone nearby who ‘s linked in. People gather for and against ideas, but thanks to social media, they can unite in real time using nothing more than a connected device or knowing someone with one. Living in hyper-connected times means that we must rethink the concept of community to include flash unions that form and break up dozens of times per day. The police in London describe their policing style as community policing, but physical communities are only part of the equation. There is a clear line between gaining a better understanding of what’s happening in the digital space and imposing a full big brother crackdown on social media as has been suggested. We can’t expect Blackberry to shut its messenger service because you don’t like what’s being said.
There is some good news for the battered city. Police are learning from how these events materialize. They are starting to understand the language of flash unions and they are able to track what’s being said publicly. Blackberry’s BBM, a private communication channel for users of their devices, is more difficult to track. Blackberry is cooperating with police to track and trace crime related messages. There are two sides to every coin. So if you want to blame social media, you can. Just be sure to give it credit when something positive happens as well. People used social networks to unite in the name of anger and chaos, but today others used social channels to aid the cleanup effort. Time will tell which of these movements last longer. Both the rioters with balaclavas and the anti-rioters with brooms have gathered around polarizing ideas. But I wouldn’t be surprised if a select few rallied around anarchy in private and order in public. In our dynamic hyper-connect world you can use social media to be a part of any community, social, anti-social, or both.
Here are a few lessons learned from a few days of madness:
1. Social Media is a communications tool that makes it easier and faster to communicate (anything).
2. Don’t blame the tool for the actions of the user. We must be careful and cautious when using social media professionally because there’s always an element of unpredictability when communicating through a shared medium.
3. Communities are dynamic unions of people that are only as strong the idea that they are centered around. Strong communities can be real, virtual or any combination of both. Nurtured communities thrive on and offline.
4. Don’t overreact. We’re all still learning and getting better at communicating and listening online. Take the time to learn more about what’s really happening before making rushed decisions.
5. With great power comes great responsibility. A tool for one is a weapon for another.
(This post first appeared on WCG Common Sense Blog)