We hadn’t planned to return to the subject of social networks so quickly after introducing our latest thinking on the subject here last week, but a week of disorder in England has thrown up big questions about the the relationship between online social networks and real social tensions. It seemed worth coming back to it. – Andrew Curry.

Alex Steer writes: We think of riots as disorderly. We observe the way in which an initial silent protest outside Tottenham police station, seeking answers from the police over the death of Mark Duggan, burst first into focused violence, and  then into crime and looting that was more dispersed, less explicable, less clearly connected to its initial cause. But riots are also a form of social networking activity, an impressive (though intimidating) coordination of individuals, each self-motivated but guided by a set of common practices and ground rules, even in the absence of clearly articulated goals.

Sound familiar? In social networks, ideas are transmitted by memes, not manifestos. The Metropolitan Police made much of its impressive ‘command and control’ structure. But the rioters didn’t need one. Since the uprisings of the Arab Spring (far more coherent, and legitimate, in their orientation), it’s become fashionable to talk about ‘leaderless’ revolutions. While the lack of chains of command has been exaggerated, in both the Arab demonstrations and the London riots, it’s good to see more attention being paid to our ability to ‘organize without organizations‘ (in Clay Shirky’s memorable phrase).

From a technology perspective, the story has been the role that online social networks have played in the coordination of the riots. The media – and perhaps the authorities? – found themselves blindsided by a misunderstanding of how consumer decisions shape their use of online social networks. (We can say with some confidence that these looters were acting as consumers, though not ones bound by the usual laws of market exchange.) When the riots began, and as they spread, it became obvious that they were being coordinated online, as people used their social graphs as a recruitment mechanism to get more people onto the streets – and, in the days that followed, to pre-arrange tactical looting in towns and boroughs. The media’s attention turned immediately to the big, familiar social networks, Facebook and Twitter.

Using our Pivot Points framework, we can describe these as ‘Big Net’, ‘Open Hand’, ‘Turn On’ networks. They are built for scale, openness, and immediacy – as you know if you’ve ever tired of having a thousand ‘friends’, accidentally left compromising pictures visible to the wrong people, or tweeted in anger. They are the perfect tools for commenting on emerging events, as we’ve seen, and even for organizing legal activity, as the mass ‘riot cleanup’ operations of the last few days have shown.

For organizing rioting or looting, though, Big Net/Open Hand/Turn On networks are a disaster. You want them to be ‘Turn On’ networks, of course – they have to work in real time – but scale and openness are perilous if you want to avoid the attention of the police. It took the rioters less time than the media to figure this out. In our framework, the opposite of ‘Big Net’ is ‘Tight Knit’ – smaller-scale, more intimate networks which revolve around connections with a few close friends. The opposite of ‘Open Hand’ is ‘Closed Fist’, where privacy and secrecy are paramount.

Under the radar of mainstream attention, BBM has seen a huge growth in popularity among teenagers and young adults. In part this is because it’s free; in part, because its PIN authentication system, and RIM’s strong pro-privacy stance in other countries, give a reasonable guarantee of secrecy. We know that intimacy and secrecy are of interest to British teenagers, especially poor ones on the fringes of hyper-localised gang cultures, so it’s no surprise that the perfect Tight Knit/Closed Fist/Turn On network was already in their hands – private group texting and instant messaging smartphone apps, and especially BlackBerry Messenger (BBM).

When we focus on the obvious, we can miss a lot. The Pivot Points framework is designed to test our assumptions about what the shape – or shapes –  of the social networks of the future. By concentrating on the types of networks they knew, journalists misunderstood how London’s, and England’s, disorder was spreading.

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