Mad Mobs: Crowd Control In The Age Of Twitter And Flash Mobs

In August 2011 riots broke out in the Tottenham section of London, after protests against the police killing of a 29-year old man turned violent.

Over the ensuing days riots spread to other sections of London, spurred on by social media posts that encouraged looting and out-of-control behavior. The world was shocked by the scale of lawless activity and how small the initial spark had been.

Professor Clifford Stott [LINK] of the University of Liverpool has been studying crowd violence and public order for decades. In recent writings he suggests that the traditional view of riots—mindless mayhem—is completely wrong. Crowds, he states, frequently are not anonymous. They represent communities that have real grievances and need to be treated, as far as possible, as individuals.

In Stott’s view a crowd’s capacity for losing control hinges on two dimensions that we can make explicit and map. The first is legitimacy or the degree to which individuals view authority as having legitimacy. Legitimacy can range from total disrespect for police to absolute deference.
The other is power, defined as a crowd’s perception of its own power. As a crowd grows in size and becomes conscious of its ability to do whatever it wants, the capacity for mob actions grows. Power ranges from very low to very high.

The big new challenge for police, according to Stott, is that technology has altered how crowds perceive their power. This is key. In a pre-smartphone era police and crowd confrontations were defined by geography. You wouldn’t know a riot was starting unless you were there. The instant communications capability of tools such as Twitter and Facebook have expanded the geography of crowds. In the case of the London riots, Twitter instantly connected individuals in disparate neighborhoods, creating a ragged but effective communications structure that helped direct the looters to particular locales. As soon as police thought they had contained looting in one street, it would break out in a new area a few blocks away as crowd members tweeted new opportunities. Though police can physically contain a large crowd, they have a harder time preventing crowd members from communicating with one another. This was evident in various uprisings during the Arab spring as well, particularly that in Cairo.

There are exceptions. In 2011, San Francisco’s BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) system was targeted by demonstrators, once again angered by a police shooting. The demonstrators were eager to shut down the ability of commuters to get to their trains, and used cellphone communications to elude police barriers within the terminals. The BART authorities responded by cutting all cellular communications within their stations, effectively shutting down the crowd’s ability to expand its geography beyond physical line of sight.

Legitimacy versus Power
Let’s examine the perceptual map of Legitimacy and Power and see how it affects policing options.

Upper Left: High Legitimacy, Low Power. Crowds comprised of people who are deferential to police authority and low in their perception of their own power are very unlikely to riot. Average citizens in impromptu groups—say shoppers in a store—fit this definition.

Lower Left: Low Legitimacy, Low Power. A crowd of people who have no respect for police may be dangerous, but unlikely to engage in mob action unless their perception of their own power increases. Police dealing with this sort of crowd are wise to defuse grievances and do nothing to spark increased anger.

Lower right: Low Legitimacy, High power. Danger zone. This is the kind of group spawned in London last summer. The images of police arrests, tweeted among friends, reduced the legitimacy of authority. As the size of the crowds grew, violent action was easy to spark.

Upper right: High legitimacy, High power. This type of crowd may be more amenable to taking orders. They feel powerful but also respect authority. Think of a typical crowd at a concert, park, or other public event where there is a powerful shared group experience occurring. There is a potential for violence but it’s low and most people will follow the rules.

Professor Stott has written a book called Mad Mobs And Englishmen, Myths and Realities of the 2011 riots.

Apple’s Strategy Evolution 2011

Draw a cloud on a whiteboard. Now draw four boxes inside the cloud and label them “Facebook,” “Apple,” “Google,” and “Amazon.” Increasingly this is the picture of the world. The internet cloud is still there, but all the action takes place inside the walled gardens that control access to our communications, our documents, our apps, our friends, and our commercial transactions. Put another way, for these four companies, the old internet cloud doesn’t work. Too much of the content is free, customers interact while shielding their identity from those who supply them with information and applications, and there are not enough social rules to create a safe-enough environment for commerce.

The Big Four, and some others, are strategically focused on Walled Gardens, Internets-within-the Internet. Each Walled Garden comes with its own proprietary advertising, media, commerce, and individual rights. Of the four (which we’ll cover in later posts), Apple is the one most on its game. And, the most feared. You can tell a company is at the pinnacle of its power when it is accused of extracting monopoly rents. People then start calling you “the evil empire,” the successor to IBM and Microsoft in their respective heydays. And, like those firms, Apple follows an archetypal strategic pattern, one that it didn’t exactly invent, but has perfected as well as anyone before.

In an earlier post we discussed how Apple’s iPod, more than any product including the original Macintosh, put the company on a new strategy arc. The iPod was the company’s first successful product extension. And, it also created the need for iTunes software, which simplified digital music playback and drew in the hordes of Windows users who wanted iPod functionality for themselves. This was the company’s first successful market extension into the Windows customer base. Finally, these two innovations paved the way for a diversification via the iTunes store. The store put Apple in the content and cloud businesses, areas which have since become the company’s main focus.

Ansoff’s Product/Market Matrix, now around for nearly 50 years, is still useful for thinking about this issue. Apple perfected this computer industry model in which a product extension gains new revenue and leads to market extensions. Once internet services and software are added (diversification), the virtuous cycle is complete.

The current strategy is a higher octave, an echo, of what has come before. The iPad is a wild success with current users (product extension) and is starting to draw in new users (market extension). As new content and features flow into the app store (diversification), customer satisfaction and Apple profits grow. The cloud, which increasingly represents all types of information, apps, music, and movies, is now the key focus of Apple’s strategy. And, they’re letting the great things they’ve learned in selling apps to trickle back to computer platforms as well, improving customer experience.

Many have predicted that by now Apple’s dominance in musicplayers, smartphones, and pads, should be cracking. The strategy, they insist, must break down, and to prove their point, they point to the case of the Wintel duopoloy of the ‘90s, which nearly destroyed Apple. But this is faulty reasoning. “Open” platforms—those in which anyone is free to develop and run software—don’t always triumph over closed systems. In fact, precisely because of its proprietary hardware, Apple was the only company capable of this strategy. We’ll explore questions about that in our next post.

Getting The Tensions Right

strategy + business Autumn 2010 issue
strategy + business Autumn 2010 issue

“Every business faces the opposing forces of the pull for more growth against the pull for more profitability; the demand to show profit today against the need to invest in the company’s future; and the call for optimizing the whole against the tendency of individual parts to maximize their own performance. The three performance tensions — growth versus profitability, short term versus long term, and whole versus parts — provide fundamental energy that can be harnessed to deliver superior, sustainable results. ”

So writes in a remarkable new article by Ken Favaro and Saj-nicole Joni in the Autumn 2010 issue of strategy + business

Each of these tensions is archetypal in business. Growth and profitability speaks to the conflict between costs and benefits, and head and heart. The conflict between optimizing between the short-term and long-term is about competing priorities. The need to optimize the whole organization so that it is more than the sum of the parts bumps up against many core dilemmas within the firm–most especially, change versus stability or the tension between the need to integrate versus the need to adapt and grow. For more on dilemma archetypes, see our taxonomy and article on the subject.

The authors recommend that executives maintain a productive tension among the executive team–tense enough to force these key dilemmas to the surface, but trusting enough so that groups can tackle their challenges with openness and honesty. It’s well worth a read.

Weekly Reading: 10 Reasons To Leave Facebook

There’s plenty of reason for genuine concern over internet privacy. Not one of the servers that contains your personal data is completely impregnable if it is connected to the Internet (though certainly some–like your bank’s–are safer than garden variety web sites).

It’s not surprising then that Facebook has come in for tremendous criticism for its privacy policies. The company is either audacious in its vision or contemptuous of its users, or both. Each month brings news of another way the company has conceived to share your personal data widely with potential marketing partners. Clearly, Facebook management feels that the tradeoffs between security and convenience, which we described in a recent column here will work themselves out in the company’s favor. Customers won’t want to give up the convenience of having photos, birth dates and tools for communicating all in one place. The company may be right. For many users, being off Facebook would feel like exile or ostracism.

I like to think of it in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Facebook feeds the need for love and acceptance. Privacy concerns, for most people, are theoretical at this point, stuck in the realm of morality at the top of Maslow’s pyramid. Unless sharing personal data on social media sites becomes a common threat to physical safety, a more fundamental need, it’s unlikely that it’s popularity will diminish soon. In the meantime, many pundits are finding good reasons to leave Facebook anyway. Here’s Ten Reasons to leave Facebook now.

Security Versus Privacy

CEOs occasionally say things they wish they could take back. Eric Schmidt of Google must have felt that way after causing a firestorm in early December when his comments about privacy came to light. When asked by reporter Maria Bartiromo of CNBC if users should be trusting Google with increasing amounts of personal data he responded, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”
That’s fine advice coming from your grandmother but not from someone who may control vast amounts of private information. Security expert Bruce Schneier wrote in a 2006 essay about the inherent right to privacy. Without it, he said, “we are constantly under threat of correction, judgment, criticism, even plagiarism of our own uniqueness. We become children, fettered under watchful eyes, constantly fearful that — either now or in the uncertain future — patterns we leave behind will be brought back to implicate us.”
The current threats to our privacy are very real. Our purchases, movements, phone calls clicks, and location increasingly are documented each second of each day. If that data is used and destroyed, fine, but as storage prices plunge, it hangs around for the value it may offer banks, marketers, phone companies, the police…practically anyone. How many of us would survive having every action or offhand remark we’d ever made scrutinized? Consider that for a second and you get a feel for how life is lived in societies where privacy does not exist.
The dilemmas for individuals, governments and corporations are many, as Schmidt is now learning. In the US, privacy rights are not as controlled or explicit as in the EU. Banks, in particular, have been very successful at getting Congress to stay at arms length in defining privacy rules. This allows them to share your personal financial data with departments and partners who may use it for marketing purposes.
As consumers we’ve also been complicit in the slow loss of privacy. Both in the financial sphere, and now in the personal sphere, thanks to social media sites such as Facebook, individuals have been willing to part with personal information in return for value received. But we may be paying too high a price. Interestingly, while I was conceiving this post, a colleague—a web-savvy guy who runs a blog agency—wrote to say he was curtailing his Facebook usage due to privacy concerns.

privacyversussecurity-240In the diagram the political argument roughly takes place within the oval. The left claims that security efforts imperil privacy; the right claims privacy protections imperil security.
What’s at stake in our privacy battles? Is it a tradeoff between security and privacy, as the US government positioned it during debates of the Patriot Act? Or privacy and convenience, as the banks would have it?
And, how would we synthesize a solution in which we achieve both aims? Schneier wrote in 2006 that security versus privacy is a false choice and “the real choice is liberty versus control.”
Ideally, sensible privacy protection is combined with adequate convenience for commerce.”

privacyversusconvenience-240No matter what the cause, a society with no privacy is in a state of tyranny. Imagine this scenario: One day you wake up to discover the government has been investigating your background, going back several years, with no cause. They’ve talked to people you know, examined your transactions, and tracked your movements. You’d be justifiably upset. But this is precisely what the Googles, Facebooks, banks and telcos of the world are already doing. We should not make it sound more ominous than it is but also we should be free from oversight by Google or Facebook or anyone else, just as we should be free from government control. The principle is that privacy is important, whether we have something to hide or not.

What do you say? Is the issue Privacy versus security? Privacy versus convenience? And, how might we model this question so that better options become available to us? I’ll explore the implications of this dilemma for public trust, and for corporate strategy, in the next post.