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…