Rather than attempting to understand how social networks work to create and/or maintain friendships and/or communities, the government and judges seem to be acting in fear of these means of communications. This evident in their reactionary performances of their policies and sentences. The headlines of recent days have been full to the brim of the sentences for those accused of looting/rioting in the UK recently. The Independent today (17-08-11) reported that

Two men have been handed four-year jail terms for setting up Facebook pages encouraging people to riot – even though the riots never took place.

BBC’s The World at One also reported that, although his attempt was unsuccessful,

A 17 year old youth from Suffolk has been banned from using social networking sites for a year for encouraging people to riot.

Perhaps this is based on the choice picks of sentences pointed out by media outlets I had seen (… 3 out of more than 1000 thus far sentenced), but it would seem that (at least) these ‘facebook riots’ did not happen (whether that was because of the police or people just didn’t turn up is another question.) However, with this government wanting powers to curtail the availability of the social networks during social unrest, it raises the question: are all social networks equal?

The network which the active participants used during, at least, the London rioters, seems to have been the closed BlackBerry messaging service. And while it is true to say that Facebook and Twitter will not be wholly innocent (and neither BBM itself wholly guilty), especially of spreading rumour, these two networks also provided forces of good. (see previous post for this).

The government’s further-reaching reaction is looking into how to shut down/control the social networks during points of unrest. Jeff Jarvis told the Guaridan Tech Blog that these suggested regulations ”

put the UK in the league of Saudi Arabia (which wants to control blackberry messages) and China, which wants to control communication and cuts of Twitter.

This is, he says, the curtailment of freedom of the press, as these

tools are our presses. It’s not just a communications tool, it’s more than that.

There is, of course, historical precedent of powers-that-be reacting to new forms of communication and understanding in a reactionary manner, so the actions of Cameron et al are more disappointing than unprecedented. Perhaps it suggests the real wants of those in power rather than the PR-friendly variation that has thus far flowered in the UK. At first thought, the reaction seems akin to Tony Blair’s ban on protest in Parliament Square.

One of the most commented upon things during the recent London Riots has been the use of social networks, both in a negative and positive light.

Possibly unfortunately for BlackBerry, their private instant messenger service became the focal point of organisation within the rioters and looters. There are some, apparently, very simple reasons for this:

…the kids love BBM … it’s cheap, quick and confidential.

BlackBerry’s IM is a closed and private service which prevents outsiders from viewing the messages within. The Guardian even set up a BlackBerry IM account to attempt to penetrate it, wanting to talk to some of the people committing the crimes. This community had, evidently, been established through those who knew each other through this IM service.

Twitter and Facebook users are harnessing the power of social networking to co-ordinate operations. (BBC)

On the positive side, however, these has been the force of Twitter (with Facebook lagging slightly behind). In reply to the spreading of the riots, first #LondonRiots was trending, then #UKRiot when the violence spread. While these made for fascinating reading, arguably the most important thing to trend during the last for days (in this context) has been #RiotCleanUp.

Riot CleanUp was a reaction to the destruction, both physical and psychological. A response that asserts a proactive and positive force in a community and society. It was spontaneous, voluntary, and open. And it would seem to have been a success so far. As one Twitterer astutly put: “#londonriots#anarchy, #riotcleanup = #anarchism.”

We are yet to see what long term effects on the communities these riots and subsequent clean ups will have. Obviously, nothing is black and white, so it would be far to say that not only have the events since Saturday 7 Aug 2011  ripped homes apart, they  have also created a new awareness in communities, and possibly bought some closer together, if just for now. Whatever the state reaction to these events, it is the local societies andcommunities which will see change, not central government.

* from Riot by Dead Kennedys

Historians Terence Ranger and Eric Hobsbawm compiled a book, way back in 1983, called The Invention of Tradition. Oversimplifying: the book is dedicated around recounting ways in which traditions, through historical process or started consciously, have come to represent and maintain an idea of a culture, a nation, or so on. An example of this is the invention of the image of punks. According to (my version of) Google, punks look like this:

(Image from http://blommingthenewhairstyle.blogspot.com/)

While there does seem to be a strain of this sort of imagery from the late 1970s (more London than New York), it is easy to argue that the original NYC and London punks were a much more diverse bunch (musically, anyway). This variation of the punk asthetic, rather, appears to have come to prominance through the Scottish punk band, The Exploited, who appeared a few years after the original scenes.

However, the point remains. This image of punk is an invented tradition which has come to, partly, define the subculture. The music has, arguably, gone through the process, but that is an arguement for another time and place. Not enough tweed involved, really. But, what happens when the tradition comes before the idea of the movement?

It would seem that the Muslim punk scene Taqwacore “movement” has happened this way around. Author Michael Muhammad Knight wrote about the scene in his books, and then the scene was “invented” (if you will). However, according to Imram Malik of the Kominas (a “Taqwacore” band):

Newsweek wrote about a band called Secret Trial Five at a time when they hadn’t even made any music. Not a single song. This was probably one of the most documented and interviewed scenes out there, and it wasn’t even authentic.

Today there might be 60 people tops who define themselves as Taqwacore artists… But they’re scattered through America, Canada, Pakistan and Indonesia. There’s not this collection of Muslim kids with mohawks in any one place. And the strongest followings are in Indonesia, where the bands are kind of hardline Islam and don’t like gays and all that. Which isn’t really the point.”

(From an article in the Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2011/aug/04/islanic-punk-muslim-taqwacores)

Is it really possible to create a top-down sub/counter-culture, especially one based around notions of rebellion? The internet has not, arguably, provided the intimacy for something like a music scene to be created. Aleks Krotoski noted that studies suggest that the internet is reinforcing the local, instead of creating the global, youth cultures:

Psychologically, “youth culture” is the outcome of the process that kids, navigating the tortured period of adolescence, go through as they seek a community that’s distinct from that which has come before.

However, these youth cultures have seemingly gone from the “playground” (her term) to the internet. Many would predict this would create a global community. But

What is most surprising about the findings of the research in this field is that, despite the much-hyped global network, there is very little evidence for a common global youth culture. Boyd argues that the way media is used by kids actually reinforces local connections. “Most young people interact with people they know in their everyday environments,” she says.

This is, of course, at least partly due to the idea that Code is Law – that programmers, rather than users (as advertised) of the most popular websites define how we use the web. Thus, the filter bubble. One has to be conscious, rather than passive, of their use of the net to create the global imagined community. The current tradition of how social interaction online is programmed is seemingly reinforcing the local rather than creating the global imagined community.

“We’re Not the Radio Movement, Every Station needs a Good Tuning.”*

In the first chapter of his book, Listen to This, the New Yorker music journalist Alex Ross describes a process of how classical music became insular, how it stopped being relevant and connected to the mass public consciousness. He referred to the process as “the sacralzation of music” and “the fetishizing of the past”:

“Classical music began to take on cultlike aspects. The written score became a sacred object; improvisation was gradually phased out. Concert halls grew quiet and reserved, habits and attire formal.”

This morning (2 June 2011) BBC Radio4’s Today programme – not the first place many would look for an argument on the ‘hip’ and the ‘cool’ – featured the brief discussion on if “retromania” was “stifling pop culture?” Simon Reynolds, the author of Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to its Own Past, arguing it was; someone else putting forth the suggestion that genres like grime are keeping pop music fresh. And does seem today that the 80s is more popular than ever, and the bands selling the biggest number of gig tickets are reconstituted ones. However, a key feature missed in the argument was the idea of the popular base.

Since the advent of the mass internet and mp3s, there has been an endless stream of articles about the decline in music sales. Major labels whine on and on, in a seemingly never ceaseless plea for someone to please buy the bile they decided to sign between a coke binge and sexually abusing sea life. However, the BPI recorded in 2009 that 116 (digital) million singles were sold in the UK, compared to 2002’s 43.9m (physical) singles (2002 has been cited as a high point for CD sales). Digital singles were up last year, too.

Sam Page pondering music in Copenhagen

The key difference is arguably how it is sold and how much money the record companies make. The Guardian reported in 2009 that Florence and the Machine’s Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up) sold a total of 64 (physical) copies to make it to the chart position of 16. Something that is quite shocking, and quite contrasting the above overall figure. Florence and the Machine headlined a few festivals that summer, and remain a popular band. On the other side of the scale, Eminem’s Love the Way You Lie, featuring the umbrella salesperson Rhianna, sold 840,000 (digital) copies in 2010. The scale of what can be called popular music today is very, very steep.

While there is evidently still room for mass-appeal in music, the internet has radically changed things. Frequent complaints can be heard about the state of music today: two friends have both said the one good thing the Tory’s can do is bring back is angry music in popular consciousness. Crufts-like music shows like the X-Factor seem to make and break who is the popular consciousness. However, the legendry sludge band the Melvins made it into the US Billboard top 200 for the first time in their 26 year career with their 19th (bloody excellent) album “The Bride Screamed Murder.” It is not their biggest selling album. However, this begs the question: why are we discussing what is popular rather than what does popular mean today?

“What I refuse to accept is that one kind of music soothes the mind and another kind soothes the soul. It depends on whose mind, whose soul.” (Alex Ross, Listen to This)

The internet is an amazing tool, even if Adam Curtis is probably right in his cynical attitude towards it. The diversity and the possibility of the net has thrown popular music into turmoil, and this has been evident for a while now. For those who thrive on “underground” music, the internet has been wonderful in many ways. Never before can we access as many bands, musicians and ideas if we want to. A little searching can reveal a global, healthy, vibrant, interesting, realm of music that is well rounded as you want to make it. While the old hands still create what is popular, we can now live the genuine possibility of a blissful existence, away from BBC Radio1 and all its bile. The internet has bought around the idea of the possibility, if not actuality, of picking and choosing to the variety one likes. Arguably, what it reveals for mostly is the illusion of choice.

Simon Reynolds seems to be observing the invention of a tradition: reinventing the past as we pick from it. However, what is popular culture is not what popular culture was. And, what is playing in the charts does arguably not reflect is playing on people’s ipods. Ultimately, we need to stop talking of “Popular” music and “Underground” music, or of any fixed genres. If we carry on treating music the way we are, there’s a fair-to-good chance that the music of today will come to resemble the world of “classical” music. We need to stop talking of popular music, and start listening to music again, to remember it is more than a commodity to be sold. It is music.

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* Da Skywalkers, “Radio Movement,” Heartache & Scars (Household Name, 2004):

Originally posted as a guestblog at Andrew Laws’ blog: http://www.andrewlaws.com/