UPDATE 2011.08.09, 4pm: The streets in my neighbourhood (L8) are quiet, but there is news that shops in the city centre are closing early to be on the safe side and people are moving their cars from my road. There's a feeling that the Police are more on top of things today than they were yesterday, so I'm optimistic. There are still debates about why this happened, including discussions about whether social media was an important catalyst. Here's my take on it, sent to the website Seven Streets who got in touch after seeing my initial post.
Is Social Media to blame? No.
I think it is a red herring to point to social media as the catalyst for what took place in Liverpool last night. Undoubtedly, the use of private messaging and mobile communications played an important role in organizing the riots. However, it is important to distinguish this from social media, which tends to play out within the public arena. It works best when people can just follow a public hashtag on Twitter, for example. I think it unlikely that rioters were using disguised hashtags to organize themselves. It is more likely that social media reporting on Twitter and Facebook helped people understand what was taking place, than help the rioters organize.
Personally, without Twitter, I'd have been lost to know what was going on around my area. Most of the UK media were not paying attention enough - most likely because they did not have the resources. BBC News 24 barely mentioned Liverpool, the BBC Radio Merseyside do a great job during the day, but they're also limited in how detailed a knowledge they can give of our individual neighbourhoods where most of us are interested in the 7 streets surrounding where we are, as a priority.
What we need is a much more organized hyperlocal media reporting of what's taking place. Even the Facebook group on Liverpool Riots Updates isn't really doing the job it needs - it's managed by someone in Manchester and this morning promised more updates by this evening, which is absurd. We were up all night and today we want second by second updates on the Police's latest impressions of what to expect tonight and a clearer sense of why this cannot happen again. Such reassurances cannot be guaranteed of course, but communication serves to help people understand how city leaders are addressing the situation and this is already a help, just knowing someone is giving a lot of thought to what's taking place. In my street, we just received flyers for cars indicating that they are welcome to park in a different neighbourhood tonight, if people are concerned about the car's safety. This is the sort of action that matters to people, as does the Liverpool Riot Cleanup campaign, which has been widely reported.
Social media is not isolated from other forms of communication technology - from the high resolution CCTV cameras that will help the police to bring perpetrators to task, to the mobile phones which help people understand where to avoid or, indeed, where to go and watch the destruction. We have to accept both are a consequence of having the technology, but getting rid of it won't prevent it. After all, there was no social media in 1981.
Living on the edge of the area where the riots took place in Liverpool 30 years ago, it was saddening to have seen what took place here last night. I moved to Liverpool in 2006, when it was gearing up for the European Capital of Culture year in 2008. The city has changed dramatically in 5 years - for the better, in my view. Liverpool is beautiful again. However, last night brought home the fragility of our society, not just Liverpool. We were awake most of the night as gangs of youths roamed around the neighbourhood, helicopters flying over and I even had to call the fire service for two wheelie bin blazes that started behind our apartment around 3am.
This morning, nearby streets are eerily normal, with only a handful of burned cars and many more smashed car windows as evidence that something untoward took place. Seeing the crowds of youths around the streets at the early hours of the morning, seeing the photos of Smithdowne Road and watching coverage of what was happening on twitter - with the occasional 5 second mention on BBC News 24, it was apparent that the media - social or otherwise - still isn't optimal in these situations. What I'd really have liked to have access to was a live satellite camera, so I could see what was happening all around us.
That said, there seems consensus across all reporting that people do not understand why this has happened now, which makes it seem like a very difficult situation to diffuse.
Here are some pictures from this morning. I wonder where all those kids are right now.