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Don't Blame RIM, Twitter For London Riots

You may dislike social networking or smartphones all you want--but remember they're just tools used by people.

InformationWeek Now--What's Hot Right Now
Based on some of the headlines and stories that popped up in the past 24 hours or so regarding the London riots, some people want to blame technology for the spread of the problem. That's easier, and perhaps less painful, than blaming human beings. Twitter and BBM, the RIM BlackBerry free messenger system, have become part of this story. Some people love to hate Twitter and its social networking cousin, Facebook, much the same way as some people still love to hate Microsoft. But let's not blame the technology tools themselves for the riots. These riots in London are about people, not Twitter, or BBM.

Looking at the coverage of this issue on Google News, I saw headlines like this one from the BBC: "Is technology to blame for the London riots?". The BBC story reports that politicians, journalists and even police have assigned some blame to Twitter and BBM for aiding rioters--then goes on to say that "some experts fear the extent to which technology is to blame may have been overstated."

There was this, from The Guardian: "London riots: how BlackBerry Messenger played a key role." And this, from TechCrunch Europe: "How Blackberry, not Twitter, fuelled the fire under London's riots".

BlackBerry fueled the fire under riots? Did cell phones cause drug wars? No, human greed did.

People will use Twitter, IM, BBM, or whatever tools they have at their disposal, to communicate. Twitter isn't encouraging evil, nor is RIM. Yet after the stories about teenagers and their reliance on BBM, RIM tweeted this from its @UK_BlackBerry account: "We feel for those impacted by the riots in London. We have engaged with the authorities to assist in any way we can."

As of Tuesday morning, it's still unclear exactly how RIM will help police. Authorities can ask RIM to turn over encrypted BBM communications, as InformationWeek.com's Mathew Schwartz reports. "But RIM, based in Canada, wouldn't necessarily have to comply with those requests," Schwartz reports.

Yet RIM, or BBM encryption, or teen obsession with smartphones, should not become the focus of this story.

As CNET's Chris Matyszczyk, who wrote a thoughtful opinion piece on the social media story related to the riots, points out: "Technology does have a negative role--when those who use it have a negative purpose. In a literal sense, it helps them with that purpose. But does it really give them that negative purpose?"

If you look for a positive spin on Twitter, you can find that too. As Schwartz points out, some Londoners coined a Twitter hashtag, #riotcleanup, for organizing purposes of a different kind.

Maybe my least favorite headline that popped on Google News around this story this morning was: "Top 10 Concerned Celebrity Tweets Over London Riots" (International Business Times.) Yes, Justin Bieber had his say.

A separate story broke Monday about Facebook use and teen psychological disorders, a story that started with a California State University psychology professor, discussing research that he's done. "Too much Facebook time may be unhealthy for kids" declared the LA Times. "Facebook Use May Lead to Psychological Disorders in Teens [STUDY]" warned Mashable.

But as the author of the study told Computerworld "overdoing it on social networking sites can draw out negative emotional behaviors. However ... he's not trying to imply that Facebook creates psychological disorders. That has not been shown."

You may dislike Facebook, Twitter, or smartphones. But that doesn't make them evil.

Reading about the U.S. economic crisis this morning, I came across a Harvard Business School historian discussing the current state of affairs. We can talk ourselves into a recession, she said.

We can talk ourselves into many things, due to the glut of information now available online. But we can't blame the Internet for that. We make our own choices.

Laurianne McLaughlin is editor-in-chief for InformationWeek.com. Follow her on Twitter at @lmclaughlin.

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