Don’t shoot the (BlackBerry) Messenger….

This is a post I wrote in August 2011 reflecting on the role of the BlackBerry Messenger in the riots in the UK.

The causes of the riots which tore apart the UK’s inner cities this week are unclear, yet a technological scapegoat is emerging which I couldn’t let pass by without comment.

My research interest is in the potential role of mobile technologies in overcoming social and digital exclusion in young people not in education, employment or training (or ‘NEET’) and this seemed like an opportune moment to share a snapshot of some unexpected findings from my Masters Research earlier this year.

The messaging service BlackBerry messenger has been blamed for providing a communications channel for rioters, leading to calls from UK MPs to shut down the service and a critical response from those concerned about the implications for UK civil liberties of such actions.

My recent research on mobile phones and the digital divide was carried out with young people from the same communities that were being ripped apart during last week’s riots. These committed, hard working and inspiring young men and women were designing and creating mobile apps aimed at tackling social issues in their communities, on an inspiring pilot course run by Apps for Good.

Inspired by Rich Ling‘swriting on the significance of mobile phone brands to young people, I explored technology choices with participants. They all spoke about the ubiquity of the BBM use amongst young people (which resonates with OFCOM research on smartphone use). To quote one of the young people:

“EVERY teenager from the age of eleven, not even twelve, eleven… I see kids younger than that with BlackBerry’s now…

Because of that… thats the appeal for them?

“The appeal is for the messaging.”

Because you can use it internationally as well?

“Yeah….Here and message to the States. And to me thats what every kid do. You go on the bus now and you see a kid thats over twelve you can see him with a BlackBerry typing…. They would be broke and still find money to put on their pin [referring to purchasing more credit for their BB messaging account]”

One participant in my study spoke about the need to buy a BlackBerry to exploit weak ties – in this case connections to colleagues in the music business with whom he was loath to share his mobile number but happy to share his messaging ID.

So what does this tell us?

Young people are tied into platforms which are compatible with their peer’s devices. In the case of the BlackBerry – the networks they are using are created by the manufacturers – and are limited to other people using the same device. But does that mean we should shut down the networks if they are abused for criminal purposes? The reductive technological determinism implied by this idea jars with the complex, ‘polymedia‘ world inhabited by young people in inner city communities.

From a research perspective, it’s gratifying to note that ethnographic approaches can reveal unexpected and useful findings about our relationship with technology.

I’d love to discuss these issues further and share more information on my PhD research – if you’re interested please get in touch.