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Rioting in an age of transparency

I’ve never had the need or occasion to participate in a riot. The events unfolding in the Middle East reveal the high cost of rioting for change – abuse, injury, and even death. As a Canadian, it’s tough to conceive of any challenges we face that are comparable to the pursuit of freedom occurring in those countries.

After the Vancouver Canucks failed to claim the Stanley Cup, a group of random folks (aka idiots) decided that the injustice of was worth rioting. Rioting of this sort, of course, can hardly be compared to what’s happening in other countries where people lack basic human rights. Setting aside the vast distinction between “rioting for basic rights” versus “rioting because my team lost”, it’s important to look at how rioting has changed due to social media, mobiles, and social networks.

Riots of the past generate a few iconic images (many outlets are declaring The Kiss as the iconic photo of the Vancouver event). These few images capture, and skew, what really happened. Given the limited number of images capturing an event, most rioters also had the luxury of anonymity. Things have changed.

Major Canadian newspapers released hundreds, thousands, of photos of rioters yesterday. Social media sites – YouTube, Facebook, Twitter – captured thousands more. The Vancouver Canucks Riot is a surprisingly well documented event – probably one of the best documented riots in history thanks to tweets, images, videos, and blog posts. Yes, the images and posts are currently distributed across different services and mobile devices. Police need better technologies to stitch these events together (Palantir is an organization that seeks to do exactly that for the intelligence community…and more informally, Klout, Radian6, and other social media monitoring tools offer similar services). One simple approach has already been initiated to “crowd source” the identification of individuals involved in damaging property, looting, and violence.

What does this mean? First, privacy is no longer possible. It never really was, as anyone living in a small community can attest. But today, almost everyone carries a mobile device (or two). Taking images and recording video is incredibly easy. Sharing them is even easier. Over the last decade, the technical infrastructure for creating and sharing content has been simplified to the point where anyone with even limited technical skills can participate. All it takes for those thousands of images being captured on a daily basis is for some type of event to focus the attention of individuals. As stated in this presentation (slide 22), “event-centred pattern recognition” is what happens when something significant happens that causes us to activate specific elements in the continual information stream we encounter on a daily basis. The event – a riot…or a terrorist attack…or a stock market meltdown – activates and focuses our attention on traces of information (explicit, sitting in a database, waiting a provocative question and motivation for analysis) that help investigators piece together how an event unfolded and who was involved.

On the surface, this is a good thing.

I’d love to see the Vancouver rioters prosecuted. But what about the downside?

Social spaces and the process of identity creation and growing up require some “forgivability”. If my teenage and early 20′s activities and views were captured and made available for analysis, I’d be worried. Violence is never excusable, but the same system that captures and enables the identification of rioters also captures and makes available the history of any individual. Throw in Facebook facial recognition features, Google’s Me on the Web, and dozens of similar search/curation/aggregation tools and suddenly the entire world becomes a small village where almost anything can be known about almost anyone. Connections are everything, as the leaders of the Total Information Awareness Act understood.

It’s the boundaries between our various social identities that give us a sense of comfort and security: we can (and often do) project different parts of ourselves in different spaces. I’m a father, husband, son, friend, brother, employee, colleague – among other roles. When data about those roles is explicitly captured, boundaries blur at the point of analysis. Jon Dron, Terry Anderson, and I are exploring ways to project different aspects of our identity and our content contributions in different contexts in The Landing – AU’s social network site (Jon leads this initiative and uses the term “context switcher” to define different aspects of participation in various contexts and groups).

Digital data use and privacy have not developed the accepted social norms we enjoy in physical spaces. It is not appropriate to go through my neighbour’s garbage or to sit on their backyard patio watching them prepare dinner. How does searching someone on Google or reading their Facebook profile stack up against physical world privacy violations? Would you still search and peruse Facebook profiles if the person you are reading about knew you had visited? The core problem we face in digital data use and privacy is that we are increasingly transparent in our daily lives, but the norms that govern use of transparent data have not transitioned from the physical world to the online world. What is the online equivalent of peaking in your neighbour’s windows?

Update: See also Stephen Downes’ comments and link on the riots.


  1. Lisa Read wrote:

    My thoughts echo yours. I purposely didn’t read any other blogs until I had written mine on the topic. The “backlash against the backlash” has been an interesting turn of events, too.

    Sunday, June 19, 2011 at 10:49 am | Permalink
  2. John OLaughlin wrote:

    There is a power to the instant publication of content, along with an accountable concern for actions captured. It seems that just a few years back, cities in the US were seeing unruly responses to team losses. Efforts to reduce the violence resulted in some cut backs to alcohol access late in games and some advance measures in gathering places for celebration.
    Since this is not the first instance of this in Vancouver, I wonder what additional measures will be introduced.


    Sunday, June 19, 2011 at 7:52 pm | Permalink