Social media can help riot-hit communities recover
In all the furore over social media's inflammatory role in the riots, little has been said about how local networks can bring neighbourhoods together
Much of the rhetoric following the disturbances in London is about reasserting connections and alliances: "our community", "those outsiders", "working with the police/community/local businesses" and so on. There's a sense of finger-in-the-dyke desperation in the attempt to shore up community resilience against unpredictable damage.
Meanwhile, reports of the role of social media in orchestrating criminality have been accumulating – with particular insight being offered inJonathan Akwue's note about Blackberry Messenger . But little has been said of the potential for social media in response to disorder – as a resource for sharing defensive information, challenging falsehoods, providing reassurance and, ultimately, shoring up community resilience.
Traffic to the local social network Harringay Online increased significantly on Sunday, along with related activity captured on HOL's Twitter stream . The site's core geographical scope does not quite reach to Tottenham, but of course its interest does and in lieu of a more local online focus, it was heavily used.
As events spread south on Sunday evening, the Brixton blog Twitter stream trended high across London, keeping people informed about transport availability and other news.
What is striking about HOL's role is that while media coverage was dominated by spectacle and emotion, the site was quietly fulfilling the kind of role the politicians call for: sharing information, challenging misinformation, urging calmness and offering reassurance.
HOL's coverage started on Saturday evening with alerting posts and links to live news coverage. These were followed by responsibly-toned confirmation messages, like this:
"On Twitter last night there were reports of Turkish men outside their shops tooled up ready to protect them. Walking down Green Lanes now I can confirm that as true."
There were deliberate attempts to show a considered response:
"There are simmering tensions and we need to be especially careful not to jump to conclusions about who was behind last night's events. A sad, sad day for our neighbours."
Speculation began to emerge of course, but because of the established debating culture of the site, unsubstantiated assertions tend to get challenged – usually with politeness. Nonetheless the administrators were on high alert and stepped in at one point as the politics of retribution heated up:
"I've just deleted a post that was calling for the most severe retribution. I understand the sadness, but I don't want this site to be used for intemperate calls for reaction."
Local blogger William Booth argues that these events show the value of citizen journalism in the media mix:
"Citizen journalists can fill the gap in two ways," he says. "With local knowledge and with speed of response".
But because of its collective nature, neighbourhood networks like HOL go beyond citizen journalism. Several eyewitness accounts confirm HOL's role as a repository of record, and the site was used to make sure people protected themselves. One respondent was asked whether they had noted car registration numbers: another stepped in quickly to advise that they should not answer.
The messages built up a sense of sadness and commiseration, illustrating how a local resource like this can be used for the healing process. By Monday lunchtime, people were asking what they could do to help those who had been burnt out:
"Does anyone know what is being done for these poor people, or if a fund has been set up to help them?"
Among the responses:
"They're asking for bedding, towels, clothes, toys and any other material donations to be taken there. There's an emergency line at the council for further details."
Similarly in Brixton a tweet has gone out about organising a community clear-up. There simply isn't a better channel for this sort of communication.
The experience that built Harringay Online is being extended to other areas around the country by Networked Neighbourhoods, helping local people to establish their own online communities. Given HOL's role in providing a record, clarifying information, providing an outlet for opinion and a source of reassurance, the logic is that Tottenham's recovery should include a neighbourhood network of its own.