Street politics and social media: BBM and the London contagion effect

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Recent waves of unrest in the developed world have had commentators wondering nervously if social media might facilitate the spread of unrest in Athens or Paris or now, New York, just as it did in Tunisia, Egypt and London.

This generalisation is likely unfounded, at least in terms of social media’s impact. There are obviously important differences in the solution social media poses to the collective action problem in autocracies and democracies. And apart from extremely important differences in the political context and political goals of each protest, there are differences in the cascade effect facilitated by various forms of social media, meaning ‘social media’ should not be used as a coverall term in this context. For example, the explosive spread of violence in London took security forces by surprise, but this speed has so far not been emulated by protests elsewhere in the West which, like the current Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protests, have taken weeks to build. This is arguably not only because of potential differences in political contexts and goals, but also because of the technology involved – the OWS movement uses a combination of Facebook, Twitter and traditional media whereas the London rioters mostly used BBM. All social media networks socialise ‘latent networks’ of media users, but they don’t all socialise them in the same way, and this potentially influences protests’ spread and onset. So nervous commentators should analyse not only (and most importantly) the dynamics of political context but also fine-grain differences in the features of various social media networks before making sweeping generalisations across protest movements.

Blackberry is a useful demonstration case, given the key role BBM and its associated demographic played in the riots earlier this year. Blackberry has experienced strong growth in the UK and emerging markets over recent years, with many analysts putting this down to BBM’s popularity among youth demographics – for example,  almost 37% of UK 16 – 24 year olds own a Blackberry. Market research suggests Blackberry is particularly dominant in Brazil, Indonesia, South Africa and Venezuela, with growth  driven by the youth market. India, Indonesia and of course Saudi Arabia have attempted to restrict Blackberry’s market access because of security concerns.

Two key features of BBM arguably influenced the particular pattern of the spread of violence in the UK this August: the network creation effect and the ‘spectacle’ effect.  The network creation effect refers to the nature of the network which BBM facilitates: cheap, media driven, and grown in a particular way. So BBM allows users to send messages and attached media for free to other users of the service, its broadcast function sends such messages to all contacts simultaneously, and the group chat function allows users to interact in real time using such media. The group chat feature on BBM also allows group members to invite other members, meaning all members can become administrators and invite new members, a feature not easily available using other social media. Perhaps most importantly, BBM is private by definition because of its strong encryption, meaning that its broadcasting function is not  ‘one to many’ in the same way Twitter is, for example. It is instead ‘one to many but not all’, meaning that there is at least some sort of group identity occurring or maintained within the broadcast.

This group identity, and the way BBM allows users to manipulate their place within the group leads to the second feature: the ‘spectacle’ effect, relying on the fact that BBM allows users to share video and audio easily and for free. Although data isn’t available, commentary suggests users engaging in sending video and photo messages as a way of recording their participation in events. This is what I mean by ‘spectacle’ – the flipside of citizen journalism, a self-recorded ‘spectacle’ placing the user at the centre of a media event.

The role of social media in mediating identity for the key UK Blackberry demographic as well as research on political demonstration more generally suggests that group identification behaviour is important in the context of ostensibly ‘risky’ behaviour like participating in public violence. If we assume that participating in the riots shows membership of a certain ‘group’ of people who generally view violence or antipolice action as positive, using BBM to easily send videos and pictures of an event which can easily show one’s own presence in an ‘in-group’ event is significant. In this way BBM arguably enables ‘social symbolism’. By social symbolism, scholars mean conspicuous symbols of group identification behaviour – so, the social value of either sharing information about upcoming or ongoing ‘events’ thereby implying one’s in-group status, and the value in uploading and sharing images of those events. Most social media networks allow this: BBM just makes it easier, faster and cheaper. BBM also allows users to measure the impact of this self-identification: users are alerted whenever a message of theirs is read. This arguably amplifies the feedback loop of in-group symbolizing.  The privacy of BBM makes this in-group dynamic even stronger.

Considering the literature on the influence network factors have on the spread of behaviour may help to understand the way the riots moved from Tottenham to Manchester to Birmingham. Spreading arguably ‘risky’, or ‘complex’ behaviour like rioting through ‘weak ties’ like ‘friends of friends’ on BBM should be less effective than spreading that behaviour through comparatively strong ties. Scholars argue that spreading this sort of behaviour requires the subject to experience multiple exposures from a network member with credibility and legitimacy, and that these effects are not available via weak ties. However, others argue that to some extent all social media facilitates the transmutation of weak ties into strong ties, at least as far as the spread of behaviour goes. BBM possibly intensifies the process because of its key features, as described above: the intensified ingroup nature of the network structure, privacy and spectacle create a kind of in-group feedback loop and arguably facilitate the transmission of complex behaviour.

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