Unlike the Middle East uprisings earlier this year, the relationship between this week's riots in Britain and Facebook, Twitter and other social-media platforms is not entirely clear.
Follow the story on social media, and the rioting looks less like a direct response to a single shooting than an excuse for restless youth to act out during a time of summer vacation and unemployment — and to stay glued to their mobile phones.I don't presume to be an expert on either the Arab Spring or the current rioting in Britain, but let me just suggest that the differences described above have more to do with the observer than with the participants. For an English-speaking reporter in the States (and I'm not singling out Hendrickson here) trying to cover a riot in Egypt, it's much easier to fall back on a heuristic like "Young freedom-seekers rising up against an unjust tyrant," and to comb through the very small percentage of organizational speech conveyed in English tweets. The same reporter trying to understand events in Britain, however, has greater familiarity with the organization of Western society and can read a much higher percentage of the relevant communication. Suddenly the components and causes of a riot don't seem quite so clear. The riot seems more complex because the observer has so much more data and context and doesn't need to rely as much on heuristics.
As it turns out, there are lots of reasons people participate in a riot. Some people are trying to bring down a tyrannical system. Some want to see what all the noise is. Some notice that the police are busy elsewhere and decide to grab a television from an electronics store. I doubt there has ever been a perfectly noble or a perfectly hedonistic riot. The closer you get, the more complicated it seems.