In the aftermath of the Vancouver riot, we have heard a lot about how much the city had learned from 1994. Crowd control techniques and riot response has come a long way over the last 17 years. Researchers have disentangled many of the interacting variables that contribute to mob violence.
Yet, what is largely lost in all of this is the dramatic role that social media has played.
Yesterday I published an article outlining many of the factors involved in a riot in an attempt to fill in some of the gaping holes that the media left out. However, as I followed the story it occurred to me that existing knowledge on riots has holes of its own.
Technology has evolved so fast that the current social climate dominated by smart phones and social media websites has largely outpaced the researchers that study crowd violence.
Social media has not only become front and center in documenting the Vancouver riot, but it also shares some of the responsibility for the gut-wrenching consequences.
A New Age of Social Reality
As we sit here in 2011, digital media has already transformed every aspect of modern culture as we know it.
In 2010, Rachel Dretzin explored how this new technology is changing our world in the PBS Frontline episode "Digital Nation." At the time she remarked, "I'm amazed at the things my kids are able to do online, but I'm also a little bit panicked when I realize that no one seems to know where all this technology is taking us, or its long-term effects."
Earlier this year we saw the impact social media could have on a society when Twitter and Facebook sparked and organized a revolutionary change in Egypt.
That was a breathtaking example of the positive power it can have.
The Vancouver riot now gives us the other side of that coin and taken us down the paths that Rachel Dretzin had feared.
The factors that sparked the riot have already been established. The Canucks lost a heart-breaking Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals and a car was set ablaze outside the arena immediately afterwards.
But the company line from the city and local media outlets has strongly asserted that a small group of individuals determined to initiate a riot were solely responsible for the devastation in downtown Vancouver.
Based on a lot of the public reaction, it seems that many have accepted that rationalization of the riot. It's not hard to see why. With all the videos and images out there it's difficult to argue that a small minority of people were to blame.
However, a closer look reveals that the surrounding crowd of observers contributed to the riot just as much, if not more, than the individuals directly causing the damage.
Social Media's Role in the Chaos
The spectacle of a car on fire and riot police waiting in the wings seemed too sensational to pass up for many neutral observers. Almost immediately after the riot broke out the event began to trend on Twitter. Users also began to "Geo-tag" the scene to document what was going on where in real-time.
People took out their smart phones and personal video recorders not only to document what was happening right in front of them, but also so that they could interact with the drama.
Everybody seemed to want to get that vacation-like tourist picture of themselves in front of a burning car or damaged store.
Young people taunted police by walking towards them with their iPhone in hand. The gesture almost seemed to say, "Go ahead, I dare you to hit me, I'm recording it all."
What these thousands of on-lookers failed to realize at the time is that their mere digital presence only served to encourage more rioting behavior.
I mean you can only record a burning car for so long before it gets boring right?
Not more than a few seconds would go by before another bystander would throw something else into the fire or break another window or start another fight.
In this sense it created what media critics call a "feedback loop."
Watching others motivates more rioting behavior and more rioting behavior sparks more recording.
How does the city officials explain the thousands of people that jumped in on the "fun"?
You aren't likely to hear any real answers about that anytime soon.
The fact remains that if you put a camera on the street, you can be sure that random people will start waving on screen to say, "Look at me, I'm on TV." Now that technology has allowed us to broadcast ourselves on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, the need for traditional news cameras is greatly diminished.
We are both the directors and actors of our live-streaming reality shows.
It's probable that you've heard stories about how the bridges got closed, buses stopped running, and the Skytrain stalled, and while all this might be true, there was more than enough opportunity for people to disperse and get out during the night.
So why did people stay? Even as the city was being burned and smashed all around them thousands of people roamed the streets to be a part of it all. Riot police urged people to leave time and time again, but excitement and hysteria of the moment kept swarms of people armed with the power of social media lingering around to see what would happen next.
Numerous online posts went up the following day with people openly bragging about their involvement. Brock Anton has become the poster-child of this movement and the target of anger from millions of citizens.
Perhaps the thousands of proud people involved should band together and create a new website to pool their evidence and call it YouTwitFace.
OK, so that joke was borrowed from Conan O' Brien, but how fitting for such an occasion.
Social Media's Role in Recovery
I should point out that social media wasn't only used for sensationalistic purposes.
A fast-growing Facebook page sprung up titled "Vancouver Riot Pics: Post Your Photos." This site not only served to help aid law enforcement with identifying criminal behavior, but it also doubled as a kind of "social media justice" by publicly shaming responsible individuals.
But has it worked? Only time will answer that question, but another Facebook page that had a much more immediate and positive impact is "Post Riot Cleanup - Let's Help Vancouver."
Thousands of people were embarrassed and outraged by the riot and wanted to "reclaim" the city if you will. A large faction of those people are sensible Canucks fans that don't want the riot to define them, their city, or their team.
Upon reflection, it's amazing to consider just how much of an impact social media had on this riot. In reality, there are many reasons why the riot unfolded and resulted in chaos, and the city will continue to unjustly blame a small group of people, but the cold truth of the matter is that thousands of regular people were just as much to blame for the consequences on Wednesday night as anybody or anything else.
And in the middle of it all was digital media--recording every minute detail as if it were a treasured token piece of evidence to say "I was there, look at me."
It's too bad that most of them woke up the next morning to a much different city and a much different reality.
The city, the Canucks, and the fans have taken a major blow, but hopefully the power of social media can turn the tide the other way and help facilitate a positive end to what was a diabolical night.