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What Will Happen Next, and Where? The Role of Twitter and Social Networking Sites

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As raging fires burned across London last night and the city was overtaken by reckless looting and random rioting, anybody could be forgiven for thinking that the country was falling apart – that disenfranchised youths were ripping the seams between class divides even wider than before, while the vulnerable watched on, wide eyed and fearing.

But as we acknowledge this sentiment and nod towards 80s-inspired images of a contemporary apocalypse brought on by today’s youth, we should all take a minute to pause and realise that certain stereotypes – like a small minority ruining it for everyone – were in fact realised yesterday evening.

For the majority of the country's youth was not looting JJB Sports and initiating a cat and mice game between the police in the high streets and alleyways. Instead, they homogenously sat watching events rolling on 24 hour news channels, clued to their Facebook and repeatedly refreshing their Twitter feed with anxious worry.

It is to these modern mediums that we all looked last night to ascertain what was happening in London, Birmingham and – as it now may be emerging – perhaps across the country, right into the early hours of this morning.

Without the use of social networking sites and rolling news channels, we would be in the dark.

Yet, many people are asking can Twitter, Facebook and new technologies like BlackBerry’s Messenger service be blamed for aiding the organisation of such destruction?

The question is a pointless one of which answering will not be fruitful to the clean-up operation and possible prevention measures that could be implored in the future. Before Twitter and Facebook, there were internet chat rooms; before internet chat rooms, there was texting; and before mobile phones – believe it or not – people communicated via landline telephones and were also known at times to speak in person.

Twitter may have enabled rioters to see where other pockets of violence were happening, but it simultaneously alerted Police also, enabling accessible dialogues between communities and local police.

Furthermore, use of Hampshire Constabulary’s Twitter account by local authorities has contributed to reassuring and updating residents of Southampton, listening for a voice to direct, inform and advise.

Councillor Royston Smith tweeted this morning, ‘use of social networking last night by Hampshire Police was excellent in reassuring the public and deterring would be looters.’

Twitter and Facebook also allowed Hampshire Police to be sent a photograph of a BlackBerry Messenger message stating, ‘Southampton riot let all your freinds [sic] know gunna be bigger and better than the one in london this friday in southampton town centre smash and take everything, let’s beat these londoners and show them how its done. Pass this message on to all your contacts to let them all know.’

As a consequence, Southampton police have been able to monitor potential trouble-makers and ‘take action where necessary.’ Here, Facebook and Twitter were not used to promote the organisation of further riots in Southampton, but messages were repeatedly re-tweeted and sent to police to report violence-inciting, with many posting how disgusting the idea was on social networking sites.

Without the use of Twitter and Facebook, #riotcleanup would also not be trending across the country, aiding people to manage and address what has been left as the aftermath of events so far.

Following events as they unfold through Twitter is not only a more updated way of understanding of what is happening, but it also unites those outside the riot and invites them to involve themselves as a meta-community. It is the modern day equivalent of sitting down in your living room with the entire family, listening to events as they unfold of the radio or television, sharing opinions, united in shock.

And, as these riots can be seen to demonstrate, the sense of community today is more vital than it has ever been.

Will Southampton suffer next from riots in its city centre? Who knows. Well, Twitter does, and because of that, so do the Police and the majority of people across the country still glued to their feeds and news screens in anxious worry. As a result, this time, police and local communities will be prepared.

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