Opportunistic marketers aren’t slow in suggesting that social media monitoring could have helped the Police understand the outbreak of rioting over the last few days –this article is just one example. Police do monitor social media (most obviously, large police forces tweet themselves) but it wouldn’t have been particularly useful over the last few days. Basic keyword alerts might have had them deploying forces to Leicester, Coventry and Birmingham’s childrens’ hospital all of which were reported on Twitter as being targeted – none of which were.
In fact, the real activity – and the point of greater interest to intelligent marketers was away from the obvious social media networks like Twitter. And therein, lies the more interesting story.
The promise of social media was that it would bring people closer together, creating a more democratic world. Its role in the London riots is a reminder of how utopian that promise turned out.
Social media – or more accurately those who use it – have recreated the divides that already existed in society. The well-educated US graduates who flocked to Facebook were rejecting Myspace – not just its design and features but also its community. The shift was described by a leading researcher as ‘white flight’, echoing the exodus of middle class people from cities to suburbs.
There are echoes of the social divide in the growth of Twitter. Casual observer could be lead to believe that Twitter is of a similar size to Facebook. It certainly eats up column inches in the mainstream media. According to Journalisted there were more mentions of Twitter in the national press than Facebook in the last week. For the avoidance of doubt, there are 24m UK Facebook users and less than half the number of Twitter users. Hits to Twitter account for just 1 in every 184 UK internet visits. To put it another way, Trufflenet’s clients see hits to their website from Facebook on their analytics. Twitter is too small to notice.
So why has Twitter got such a large profile? Because it’s used by older, more affluent user, mostly living in London. Research from the Oxford Internet Institute has shown that adoption of Twitter loosely tracks adoption of the iPhone. Trufflenet has even found in its work in the political sphere that it is disproportionately left wing, findings underscored by Hitwise.
It is plausible that young rioters chose to use BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) because they prefer the privacy of the closed network. Indeed, Trufflenet has previously found young people much less likely to boast about poor behaviour on Facebook than Twitter. But anyone who had actually considered the privacy angle would have been likely to find the controversy about RIM handing over data to dodgy regimes in the Middle East. It is much more likely, however, that the greater penetration of BlackBerry’s amongst poorer teenagers meant that more of their friends used it.
Twitter played a vital broadcast role in amplifying news of the riots, spreading rumours and localising the news; and now in promoting the cleanup. BBM played an organising role. Many are using Facebook as a support mechanism for close friends and families.
Understanding what’s being said on social media is no small task. But anyone seeking to utilise that to plan activity needs to go beyond that to understand who is using which channel, how and why people it is being used.