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The outbreaks of civil disorder that affected London and a number of other cities have led to a furious debate on the vices and virtues of social networking sites. Thomas Neumark of the RSA argues the focus should be on understanding the power social networks themselves.

A number of commentators including Conservative MP Louise Mensch have called for the police to be given the power to close down social networking sites such as twitter during outbreaks of civil disorder. The Prime Minister has given these calls some support by announcing an enquiry to look into the logistics of such a ban.

On the other side of the argument the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police has argued that social media actually helped his officers respond to the disorder.

Similarly, just as some commentators have condemned the spreading of rumour and false information via twitter others have been impressed by the ability of communities to use technology to coordinate efforts to clean up their local high streets.

Much of the debate can be summed up by the case of Ashraf Haziq. A video of Ashraf being mugged was widely circulated on Youtube. This led to a fundraising website being set up, which has so far raised over £20,000 for Ashraf.

Marshall McLuhan famously said that, “the medium is the message” however, perhaps in this case too much of the debate has been around the medium.

We should focus more on the power of social networks not social networking sites. Surely what we should learn from the recent outbreaks of civil disorder and their reaction is that social networks have enormous power. They enable people to quickly self-organise, drawing on a range of connections in the process and allow information to travel very quickly. Social network analysis shows that when people change their behaviour this affects the behaviour of those around them.

These observations may seem mind numbingly obvious. Yet they have had very little impact on government policy. Too often governments assume that organising people means using lengthy and formal organization, that we should focus on changing an individual’s bad behaviour and that it is government’s responsibility to disseminate information.

These assumptions are all partly valid, but they are in fact in stark contrast to the lessons we should learn from the power of social networks. Rather than denying or ignoring their power governments should seek to understand the power of social networks. They should foster and sustain healthy and inclusive networks in which it is easy and normal to know people from a wide range of backgrounds (Will Davies’ blog makes the point that simply having neighbourhoods in which people live near others with different incomes is no guarantee of them knowing or understanding each other). This is difficult, unpredictable work but the potential returns are enormous.

Thomas Neumark is former Associate Director of Connected Communities at the RSA


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