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'Cyber hooligans'? Give me a break

Pete Cashmore
Pete Cashmore: There's no evidence to suggest that social networking helped fuel "riots" this week in San Francisco.
Pete Cashmore: There's no evidence to suggest that social networking helped fuel "riots" this week in San Francisco.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Little of riotous behavior in San Francisco went undocumented on social networks
  • "Giants Riot on Polk St. !!!" venue on Foursquare appears to have most digital critics concerned
  • Pete Cashmore: "I didn't see a single tweet encouraging Twitter users to join the action"
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Editor's Note: Pete Cashmore is founder and CEO of Mashable, a popular blog about social media. He writes a weekly column about social networking and tech for CNN.com.

(CNN) -- San Francisco erupted in joyous celebrations Monday night after the Giants' World Series win. Honking car horns were heard across the city and bars were packed with revelers.

In a few instances, however, celebrations took an unwelcome turn: A bus was reportedly set alight, and store windows were smashed. Given the high density of Twitter, Flickr and Facebook users in San Francisco, few of these events went undocumented on social networks, leading the UK's Telegraph to decry a new breed of San Francisco cyber hooligans.

The truth is much less exciting.

The use of the term "cyber" is perhaps the first red flag. Not only is "cyberspace" a wildly outdated term, but headlines alerting us to a new technological threat by way of the "cyber-" prefix invariably turn out to be little more than scaremongering.

New communication methods are rarely the cause of bad behavior: Instead they're simply a new venue for existing societal issues.

Is "cyber-bullying" a disastrous consequence of this new-fangled "cyberspace," or simply another form of an age-old problem? If the bullying took place via letters sent in the mail, would we see headlines decrying the "letter bullying" trend? The intent of the prefix, it seems, is to play upon our fear of the new -- as if to imply we should all turn off our iPhones right away to prevent further degradation of our society.

Not only did unruly behavior exist before social networking, but there's no evidence to suggest that these new communication tools helped to fuel Monday's transgressions.

Like many others in San Francisco that night, I was able to tune into the city police department's radio communications via a widely-shared Ustream channel, peruse the #sfriots hashtag on Twitter and browse Flickr photos from a person living near the most riotous behavior.

None of those commenting on the night's events appeared to be active participants, however -- most were simply providing a running commentary of what they heard over the police radio.

What appears to have gotten digital critics most concerned is the creation of a Giants Riot on Polk St.!!! venue on Foursquare, the social "check-ins" service. But the creation of this new hot spot seemed to be intentionally humorous rather than an effort to encourage rioting. Comments there included, "You've pretty much redefined stupidity with this one" and "Awesome! Continue destroying our beautiful city."

Likewise, the hashtag #sfriots appeared to be ironic -- I didn't see a single tweet encouraging Twitter users to join the action. Rather, tweets were either critical of the behavior or mildly fearful.

Are we really to believe that those with serious intent to commit a crime would share those intentions online, making it blissfully easy to catch them?

But let's imagine -- without evidence -- that tweeting, or checking in, or taking photos of moblike behavior did escalate the situation that night rather than simply spreading awareness of problem areas.

Would this merit the label "cyber hooliganism," as if new social technologies gave birth to a previously unheard-of problem? And if San Franciscans instead chose to phone a friend and tell them about these so-called riots, would we then decry the rise of "cellphone rioting"?

[TECH: NEWSPULSE]

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