Why a disconnected society is far more dangerous than a connected one

A social media kill switch might also kill off our communities...

Giving the government the ability to switch off social networks at a time of crisis will do more harm than good, says silicon.com's publisher Tony Hallett.

Do we need a social media kill switch? I don't think so, not judging by where I live.

Let me explain. I call home a fairly anonymous part of southwest London called Colliers Wood. Despite it turning into a nice place to live over the past 20 years, a week ago it saw more than its fair share - if ever there can be a fair share - of disturbances, including rioting, arson, looting and other types of mindless vandalism.

It didn't warrant much mention in the rolling TV or radio news, and few online heat maps even register what went on, but it was serious wrongdoing and, relative to the size of the community, among the worst in London, I'd wager.


Communities can stay connected by means other than the traditional knock on the door, such as TwitterPhoto: pixelbully

One of the benefits of living in this part of SW19 is that it is well served in a retail sense but in addition to family-owned shops and a thriving market, there are big-brand high-street names, which acted like a red rag to the criminals' bull.

The ripped-off didn't just sell electronics (Currys, Jessops, PC World) and clothing (JD Sports, TK Maxx) but children's gear in the case of Mothercare. Even a soon-to-be-closed-down Harveys shop was set ablaze, furniture seeming to attract the arsonist, I'm coming to learn.

At the weekend, there was a community meeting. There was a lot of confusion, anger and words of support from all there - ordinary residents as much as police, fire service, local councillors, business leaders and our local MP, who has called Colliers Wood home most of her life. But one thing most agreed on was that keeping the community informed about what's going on, not letting those living alone feel helpless or misinformed, is critical. While not everyone is online - and there are clearly ways to keep that minority in the loop - online should be key.

This doesn't just apply from one day to the next or even after events, like now, but during the worst of what was happening. And what might happen again.

The silicon.com community on LinkedIn has been discussing a social media kill switch, after some, such as Tottenham MP David Lammy, have called for it - in this case, with regard to BlackBerry Messenger (BBM).

Of course communication, like a lot of other things, is used by the bad guys as much as the good ones. But I bet we can use it better.

To come back to my little corner of London now, I must admit - and I'm surely not on my own - that while it's a place I love living, I could do more to get to know people around me. That doesn't have to be a knock on the door or through conventional neighbourhood meeting spots. It can be through a simple email list, a Facebook group and, yes, even channels such as BBM and Twitter.

When we know who each other are, we can then trust information that is shared in times of concern. Many of you reading this would have been glued last Monday night not just to rolling TV news but internet channels such as Twitter. If you were like me, judging what was sourced versus what was fantasy, or purposefully worse, was hard. Clue: some people have no idea what the difference is.

In my neck of the woods, a Wimbledon Guardian reporter (@Craig_Burnett) did a great job reporting on violence at the two retail parks - and even after that on his way home in Balham.

Beyond that, I would have liked to have heard from more people in the community, often reluctant eyewitnesses because of their proximity to the trouble. For that, I need to first be connected to them. And then, I need that connection not to be killed.

Tony Hallett is the publisher of silicon.com. He can be found tweeting at @tphallett.