Letter from Simon Kelner


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The Independent Online

To the persistent soundtrack of police sirens, I followed the rolling chaos on the streets of London and elsewhere on Twitter.

This was a first for me and, I suspect, for many, many thousands of others too. Deep into the night, I was able to keep track of developments in real time and, with such a fast-moving, dramatic story, Twitter had a definite edge on the traditional media. The voices were authentic, the information came instantly and there were even efforts to give the events sense and meaning as they were unfolding. No longer was this a social network: this was an indispensable news source. Nevertheless, it was something of a surreal experience. Interspersed with breathless tweets informing the world that gangs of youths were attacking a restaurant in Notting Hill, or that fires were raging in Clapham, were the occasional jokes, or a mind-numbingly banal observation, or a piece of shameless self-promotion from Piers Morgan (nothing new there, then).

I managed to resist the temptation to add my 140 characters-worth, until someone tweeted the opinion that this was "the night the Big Society died". Hold on a second, I thought. Maybe this is the Big Society in operation, only not in the manner in which was envisaged. As I understand it, isn't David Cameron’s big idea about people not relying on the state to sort out their problems, but to join forces with like-minded souls to find solutions to all manner of social issues? Of course, I’m being slightly facetious: the sense that we should take greater control of our own destiny clearly does not extend to fulfilling the desire for a new mobile phone by putting a brick through the window of your local Carphone Warehouse.

Yet every coin has two sides, and I don't think we should rule out the fact that, even for those intent on criminal damage and without any political motive, there is a belief, however perverted it may be, in communal action achieving results. But the ying to the yang came as dawn broke over our smouldering cities yesterday. If ever there was an example of the Big Society, it was the voluntary efforts made by a massive number of citizens to clean up their own neighbourhoods. The exercise was coordinated on Twitter and Facebook, in exactly the same way the rioters had planned their own activities. These are confusing, unpredictable times. Mind how you go.

Simon Kelner is Editor-in-Chief of The Independent, The Independent on Sunday and i