I’ve been on the radio this morning and will be again tomorrow explaining BBM to the unfamiliar. It’s a funny phenomenon: so confined to a specific audience in this country that there hasn’t even been much media interest in it — until now. Compare that with Twitter, the journalist’s choice of social network, which has been hyped beyond belief.
I confess I’m not even on BBM: there’s no reason for me to be. I can only think of three friends (including my wife) who use Blackberries and I have numerous channels of communication with them (sometimes I even talk to my wife face to face).
But for a large chunk of our Blackberry-wielding youth (37% of young smartphone owners have a Blackberry according to Ofcom) BBM is the primary form of digital communication, outstripping email and SMS and bypassing Facebook. Twitter’s barely on their radar. (Another confession: this is far from hard data and purely based on experience working with young people — though I’m sure there’s data somewhere that will back this up).
It is for this reason that BBM has been used in the co-ordination of the riots over the last few days. There’s been some speculation about its supposed security but this is something of a misnomer. Just because the network is closed and not transparent like Twitter doesn’t mean it is necessarily hidden from the prying eyes of the authorities. As Simon Bisson pointed out on ZDNet, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) gives the police all the clout they need to get access to Blackberry-owner RIM’s data, and then to cross reference this data with mobile operator records to identify devices, locations, and perhaps even individuals. RIM’s statement this morning would suggest they might be co-operating with just such research.
Even if this weren’t the case — and I very much doubt the looters are familiar with the ins and outs of the RIPA — it isn’t for security reasons that these people have used BBM. It is because it is what is in front of them. It is their defacto form of digital communication and it makes communicating with individuals or groups quick and easy.
It is also free. Blackberries are the gateway drug for smartphone addiction: cheap handsets and budget contracts with unlimited access to BBM makes them very appealing for the young.
So, media friends, this is why BBM was used to organise the riots: because it was there. It’s not sinister and it’s certainly not to blame. It’s not even secret or private really — not if you’re in the UK and the police have a good enough reason to want to look.
You might need to look elsewhere for the cause of these riots.