Claims that social networking tools were used to co-ordinate the London riots, which have since spread to other cities including my former home town, Birmingham, point to a new digital divide: this divide is not about online and offline, but about a divide between the Twitterati, Facebook users and users of other platforms.
Following broad-brush claims that social networks have been used to co-ordinate the rioting and plundering, Twitter users have been quick to respond, pointing to Twitter campaigns to clean up the streets following the riots. They are right, but that isn’t the end of the matter.
It turns out that the riots were co-ordinated using Blackberry smart phones, which allow anonymous, encrypted, but social, communication. Blackberries? I tend to associate Blackberries with conservative business users but I was surprised to read a BBC article last week reporting that teenagers who own smart phones prefer them. While it may seem logical that they choose Blackberry devices because of the privacy and anonymity they offer, the article suggests that privacy is more of concern to older users.
Previous concerns about the digital divide seem a little simplistic now. Previously we thought in terms of a divide between online and offline, seeing the ultimate goal as getting the “final third” online. Doubters were confronted with research that deprived youngsters, especially from ethnic minorities, were more often online than one might expect. The logical conclusion was that public services need to engage more with the online generation, usually in the form of YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. Now we find that there is a whole generation we risk ignoring because of assumptions about which social media tools they use.
When I worked for Birmingham City Council, I spent some time on a project to help heal the wounds of the riots in Lozells and Handsworth in 2005. Then, the lessons learned were that false information spread by pirate radio stations inflamed the situation, reinforcing tensions between ethnic and religious groups. Encouragingly, yesterday there was a report of Sikhs and Muslims from the area standing together to fend off the looters.
Just as things are moving on there, communication habits have moved on too. Back then, pirate radio was a blind spot and monitoring established radio stations simply couldn’t give any tip-offs about the violence. Now, the blind spot is Blackberry devices and presumably a whole host of other communication channels.
So do local authorities need to start opening channels with young Blackberry users, as a Guardian journalist has done? I think in some cases they will have to, but will also have a difficult job in keeping a keen eye on the latest trends in communication.
It looks like digital just divided again.