In the wake of the riots in England I’ve heard many opinions on the credibility of Twitter and other social networking sites. Social networking played a significant role both in fanning the flames of the riots, and also in the clear-up afterwards as well as support for some of those whose livelihoods had been destroyed. It seems that whether you applaud Twitter for its usefulness or deplore it for how unhelpful it’s been, it’s simplest just to disregard how Twitter performed on the other side of the argument.
But what if we tried to take both perspectives into account at the same time? How can we hold together those two views in some sort of creative tension? Or is it really worth the effort?
My own view is that looking at the role of social networking is not just interesting and helpful, but critical to understanding Western culture and the context in which we live today. It has become a massive phenomenon, and has been responsible for information being disseminated without the media companies ‘interpreting’ in their own style, for assisting incitement to violent behaviour, for enabling local people to offer support in the wake of the storm at the Pukkelpop festival this week, and even for publishing sheer banality on a very wide scale.
I think it might be important in this debate to consider the idea that objects, in and of themselves, have no intrinsic moral or ethical value, but rather it is the inclinations of the people using those objects that is the root of the issue. For example, you can use a frying pan to cook a meal or to knock someone unconscious, but it’s the person who holds it in their hands who determines its use. Perhaps there are some items that become so locked into a cycle of unhealthy usage that in human minds they become irredeemable, but I do wonder if that depends on the capacity of the human mind to be transformed, and how much acknowledgement we give to that potential.
If this is true then all that Twitter has done is to highlight the wide variety of responses that human beings naturally make when things go wrong. It suggests that the great breadth of human experience and development expresses itself in different ways, through whichever means of communication are available. True enough, it’s highly unlikely that Twitter will ever be transformed into something that is exclusively used for helpful and creative purposes. But I can’t help believing, somehow, that for all those who now fear Twitter for the part it played in the riots, it is possible to redeem the object of their fear by using it for better purposes, and by encouraging others to do the same. After all, the social networking phenomenon is becoming very well established, so it looks like we need to get used to it!