Here are a few quick observations about what recent events in London can teach us about the relationship between social media and collective action.

First, those of us who study protest I think originally focused on the potential for Twitter, Facebook, and other social media to help citizens in authoritarian societies to outmaneuver authorities bent on repression. This story was first told in regard to Moldova’s Twitter Revolution (although eventually there would be a lot of debate about whether the use of social media among the opposition was actually overstated), and then even more so in Iran in 2009 and Egypt earlier this year. What we have learned the last few days in London, however, is that these same tools can be applied by people in open, democratic societies who want to commit unlawful acts that require collective action. Perhaps this shouldn’t be so surprising: after all, the name of the game in both cases is to continue doing what you are doing while avoiding punishment from security services. Nevertheless, it is interesting that less attention was previously paid to the “negative” potential for social media in coordinating mass action (although I am happy to stand corrected if others know of commentary/research in this regard). I also fear that this is a genie that is now out of the box – it is hard to imagine that others won’t follow the lead of the British rioters in using these kinds of tools in the future. (Although as Erik has noted, #riotcleanup shows that Twitter can just as easily be used to mobilize counter-veiling forces in society as well!)

Second, I think it is important to note that not all social media are created equally. I emailed a colleague in London about the riots, and he first wrote to tell me that this was a story about Twitter. But then he shortly thereafter wrote back to note that actually what was going on was that people were using Blackberry Messengers, which are not public in the way that Twitter is. This point was driven home when I noticed the following quote in a BBC story about rioting in Birmingham, England:

Police said they had been aware of “Twitter intelligence” from lunchtime on Monday, suggesting there would be trouble in the city during the evening.

So this is also something that struck me as new – the fact that authorities could use Twitter to try to anticipate the actions of the masses. Again, in the London context this is from the perspective of maintaining law and order, but I can’t imagine why this isn’t something that could be replicated in the case of peaceful protest against authoritarian regimes as well.

Finally, there is an important lesson from Mancur Olson that is worth reiterating here: collective action is always easier with small groups than with large groups. I am struck by the continued references in all the stories regarding the riots in England to the sizes of the groups involved: numbers between 100-200 seem to keep coming up. Twitter, Blackberry Messengers, and Facebook may make real time collaboration among potential collaborators easier regardless of the size of the group, but it is possible that they may have more of an impact among groups of particular sizes. Perhaps in the future we may come to realize that this range of 100-200 people represents a kind of “social media sweet spot”, whereby the group is too big to function without the social media, but small enough that social media can actually facilitate tight and effective coordination. This would certainly be a very interesting question for future research.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Joshua Tucker

Joshua Tucker is a Professor of Politics at New York University.