On Monday night, as London became a battleground, there was a subtle change in my street. The house opposite mine is occupied by a Caribbean family, with teenage and twenty-something children. On summer evenings they sit with friends on the steps and talk and play music, sometimes argue, sometimes just watch the world go by. Last Monday they were on their smart phones and the conversation that drifted across the street was about what was happening on Twitter.
It was striking that a family I’ve known for eight years—I’ve watched the kids grow up, the cops turning up regularly, the parents flipping out—were for the first time in ages talking about something outside their usual turf.
In today’s PMQs David Cameron announced he would consider “whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.” How one goes about “knowing” will be contentious. But the broad idea of banning certain “undesirables” from social media is surely the wrong one. What Cameron should be doing is encouraging it.
In 2009 Prospect ran a small survey asking Twitter users to identify their political opinions. What it found was a bunch of users skewed towards the liberal, metropolitan elite. Further research in 2011 also found that “liberal opinions” were better represented on Twitter compared to the broader internet, whereas “ex-council communities” and “claimant culture” were less vocal.
One reason the neighbour’s kids twitter conversation was a good sign was that Twitter had brought more people—those under-represented on the site—into the big conversation. There’s no data set on what people do within their particular networks but let me take a wild punt on this. It’s pretty hard to get involved in Twitter or Facebook and not follow what’s going on in the wider world. Through the re-posts, re-tweets, memes and hashtags, the one thing you can’t avoid is news.
Actually knowing what is going in your street, your city, your government is the route to involvement in society. While TVs are now plugged into Playstations rather than the aerial for the News at Six, and smart phones are ubiquitous, turning on a social network is turning on a super-charged connection service to the outside world.
But there’s another reason for Cameron’s undesirables to join social networks. The media barely saw tensions that fuelled the riots. Perhaps because of the demographic skew of Twitter or perhaps because certain sections of society aren’t used to voicing their opinions, it will be hard for a historian to find some digital tracer trail of the discontents that brought about the English riots. And that is in itself a shame, because social media—one that connects a broad group of people with communal interests—is a place for argument and ideas to be aired. It can and should bring the voices to the surface that are little heard in mainstream media.
It may not create a society of contented citizens but it just may make a critical few more people feel enfranchised, connected to something more than their own concerns. They might even come to vent their opinions in 140 character batches rather than spasm into mindless violence.
Incidentally, the kids from across the road stayed home on Monday night.