It’s about the people, not the tools

Social media have received some bad press, recently. Especially after the riots in the UK. Looters and rioters used BlackBerry messenger and Facebook to organize their destructive – and criminal – activities. Earlier this year, social media were also credited as being instrumental to the revolutions in some Arab countries. These events have made some governments rethink the way they look at social media. And that’s just silly.

First of all, riots, looting and revolutions happened before the internet existed, let alone before social media were as mainstream as they are now. At the root of them are not Facebook or Twitter accounts, but unhappy people. People with bleak outlooks. If there’s any lesson we should take from the events this year, it is that people have a breaking point; and after reaching that point, they will take to the streets. No matter how a government tries to limit or block communication lines.

Second of all, and this goes mainly for the UK riots, social media was not only used to organize looting and rioting. Although the UK government now seems to focus on that aspect, seemingly to have an easy-target culprit without having to look for blame elsewhere. It was also used in community building efforts by people who were shocked to see their communities become battlefields overnight. Quite quickly a website, Twitter account and hashtag were set-up, labeled RiotCleanUp, to organise people to help clean the streets from debris. I’ve even seen an example of this information being used by a young boy who had baked cookies for cleaning volunteers. Thanks to social media, he knew where to bring them and his father could share pictures of it.
Blogs, another form of social media, were used by people to speak out for their communities in a positive way, and to report on the now slightly famous post-it note love walls. And in the last few days, another action popped up: Deloot London. This tries to organise people to buy at the heaviest-hit local stores, so that they can quickly recover from the damages and “to make sure that not a single shop that was looted during the riots is forced to close”.

Social Media are tools. Tools that people use to facilitate conversation. It’s in how you use these tools that can make you succesful, someone who contributes to society, or someone who incites criminal behavior. The choice on how to use these tools is yours.

This post was published earlier in the August newsletter of the American Chamber of Commerce in Latvia.

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