Thursday, 25 August 2011

Media Studies embarrasses the government again.

For most of the past few years, our politicians have gone round the world telling less democratic regimes to open up the web to release the creativity and political yearnings of their citizens.

Meanwhile, Western technology companies sold these repressive regimes all the tools needed to monitor and throttle online activity. Cisco, RIM, Google: they don't have political principles, they have shareholders.

Our leaders' enthusiasm for web freedom turned out to be - like democracy - something you only drop on your enemies. Wikileaks and the recent riots have seen them turn to exactly the same techniques employed by the Chinese, Egyptians and the Libyans. For instance, the Home Secretary has suggested turning off Twitter and similar services, and is meeting the tech companies to discuss how to censor the web during disturbances. No sense of irony, these people.

But here's an inconvenient truth: the medium is not, in this case, the message. The Guardian's analysis of riot-related Twitter feeds reveals that it wasn't being used to plan or co-ordinate looting and destruction. It was used to comment, and to organise a clean-up. 

A preliminary study of a database of riot-related tweets, compiled by the Guardian, appears to show Twitter was mainly used to react to riots and looting.
Timing trends drawn from the data question the assumption that Twitter played a widespread role in inciting the violence in advance, an accusation also levelled at the rival social networks Facebook and BlackBerry Messenger.
The day after the riots subsided, the prime minister told parliament the government was looking at banning people from using sites such as Twitter and Facebook if they were thought to be plotting criminal activity. Cameron said the government would do "whatever it takes" to restore order, adding that a review was under way to establish whether it would be right to attempt to prevent rioters from using social networks.

This kind of analysis, in fact, is one of the things that Media Studies does.

The government's reaction proves that it isn't interested in specifics, details or truth. It, like all reactionary bodies, simply reacts to something it doesn't understand by stamping on it. Institutions are very slow to grasp the potential and actual benefits of new tech: they're too quick to see how their own authority might be eroded by the sheer speed and privacy of services like Twitter.

I'm not a Twittevangelist. I'm not on Facebook or LinkedIn or Foursquare… I had my doubts about how useful it might be, and I'm still not convinced that footballers tweeting 'stop the violence', me suggesting satirical names for Jeffrey Archer's cat, or people announcing that they quite liked TOWIE adds much to the sum of human achievement. But the organisational and information-seeking opportunities inherent in a service which lets you tap into the collective wisdom of early adopters shouldn't be denied.

But for the government, there's are some simple rules which they can apply to new media, to welfare provision, to rioting teens. They also work for me in all aspects of my life.
1. Your initial instincts shouldn't dictate subsequent decisions.
2. Everything is more complicated than you think it is.
3. Take some time to think through the consequences.
4. Don't just consult people with whom you already agree.

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