The last few days of rioting have provided people who work in the field of public engagement a dramatic example of how fast moving this field of expertise has become. What we have witnessed on a national scale is the convergence of off-line and on-line channels of engagement to organise criminal activity, to prevent criminal activity and to clean-up (quite literally) after criminal activity on a scale never seen before.
For me it all began with #tottenham which then became #londonriots and then #ukriots. This then switched to and was then supplemented by a rolling programme of 24hr news – which were also following and reporting on the same hashtags and tweets. I believe this to be the experience of many who were not directly amongst the riots but were aghast at what they were seeing unfold before their eyes.
On the ground apparently Blackberry Messenger and tweets were being used to coordinate criminality. This social technology was being used to keep one step ahead of the police. But fascinatingly this also meant that social technology was being used to coordinate physical activity – crowdsourcing of a heinous kind! Subsequent reporting indicates that whilst Twitter did play its part most of the coordination came from Blackberry Messenger.
“The Guardian got its hands on BBM messages directing rioters — blasts that are shocking in their specificity. “Everyone in edmonton enfield wood green everywhere in north link up at enfield town station at 4 o clock sharp!” reads one. Another directs looters to Oxford Circus in the heart of London: “SHOPS are gonna get smashed up so come get some (free stuff!!!)” Mashable
People and public agencies (with the exception of Blackberry Messenger as it is encrypted) were able to monitor this and follow the progress of the riots, intervene, or sadly take part (faster than traditional news could) primarily on Twitter. In addition those people in the thick of it were uploading videos to Youtube and tweeting pictures live from the scene. We had an army of citizen journalists out there.
Politicians and concerned (many angry) people also piled into the Twittersphere. Word has it that Stella Creasy (@stellacreasy) did a sterling job. Apparently she amassed 200 tweets in three days providing advice, scotching rumours and addressing safety issues. She even used it for crowdsourcing to get people to crisis community meetings (look at the featured image carefully). Others did the same. Again we witnessed the amalgamation of both social technology and traditional face to face action. Most amazingly was how this brought communities together around things like #riotscleanup and facebook pages dedicated to cleaning up local communities and supporting the police. Again we witnessed social technology and traditional engagement coming together in a fast moving way. The clean-ups were organised overnight. As were local Dad’s armies.
So what we’ve all been trying to keep up with over the last few days is a frenzied mixture of citizen led 24hr news, social media broadcasting and face to face community action all operating in a place called public engagement. Now is the time to ask yourself what skills and resources you need to operate effectively in the field of fast moving public engagement!
Jonathan Bradley is a Director of Participate Ltd (@participateuk) and an Associate of the Consultation Institute. He also writes this public engagement and social technology blog. We are looking for contributors! You can get him @jontybradley.