Gangster social

From Wired, we learn about how gang members in Chicago are using social networks as part of their methods of intimidation, organisation and self-aggrandisement, with seemingly little regard for the public nature of these spaces.

We naturally associate criminal activity with secrecy, with conspiracies hatched in alleyways or back rooms. Today, though, foolish as it may be in practice, street gangs have adopted a level of transparency that might impress even the most fervent Silicon Valley futurist. Every day on Facebook and Twitter, on Instagram and YouTube, you can find unabashed teens flashing hand signs, brandishing guns, splaying out drugs and wads of cash. If we live in an era of openness, no segment of the population is more surprisingly open than 21st-century gang members, as they simultaneously document and roil the streets of America’s toughest neighborhoods.


There’s a term sometimes used for a gangbanger who stirs up trouble online: Facebook driller. He rolls out of bed in the morning, rubs his eyes, picks up his phone. Then he gets on Facebook and starts insulting some person he barely knows, someone in a rival crew. It’s so much easier to do online than face-to-face. Soon someone else takes a screenshot of the post and starts passing it around. It’s one thing to get cursed out in front of four or five guys, but online the whole neighborhood can see it—the whole city, even. So the target has to retaliate just to save face. And at that point, the quarrel might be with not just the Facebook driller a few blocks away but also haters 10 miles north or west who responded to the post. What started as a provocation online winds up with someone getting drilled in real life.

So these gang members really don’t give a second thought to public / private, to secrecy as part of what they do. In a horrible way they are arguably being “radically transparent”. interesting to thing about Clay Shirky’s examples of online social networks defeating organised crime in Here Comes Everybody. So, do we here have organised crime adopting open, loosely coupled networks to pursue their agenda?

Well they are definitely networked, but possibly not that organised in the way we would usually think about criminal organisations…

Harold Pollack, codirector of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, says that in every talk he gives about gangs, someone inevitably asks him about The Wire—wanting to know who is, say, the Stringer Bell of Chicago. But The Wire, based in part on David Simon’s Baltimore crime reporting in the 1980s and ’90s, is now very dated in its depiction of gangs as organized crime syndicates. For one thing, Stringer Bell would never let his underlings advertise their criminal activities, as a Central Florida crew did this spring when it posted on its public Facebook page that two of its members had violated their parole and been arrested for posing with guns on their personal Facebook pages.

Something here connects to a link that Will McInnes tweeted – about “open source warfare“, a post by John Robb, author of Brave New War. These gang factions are becoming less centralised, more open, less geographically defined (as the main gang war in the Wired article escalated, across the mid-West, as social followers of the tweeting, rapping gangsters enacted small proxy battles in their own neighbourhoods).

Conflict and crime, like every other area of human life is being disrupted, re-imagined, is re-emerging in new forms.

Uncertainty (and the certainty of Wikileaks coming to your organisation soon)


The introduction to a blog post by Charlie Beckett about the US State Department’s dilemmas and dealings with the Wikileaks affair more or less articulates something I’ve been mulling recently: how can organisations respond to some of the more extreme effects of the web:

Authority hates uncertainty. Big business and government feel safest when life is predictable and stable. Change implies a risk that your grip on power will be weakened. And unexpected change is the worst kind of all. But if uncertainty is permanent, can systems adapt?

A state department official, speaking at Polis under Chatham House rules, described the impact of Wikileaks on the delicate art of diplomacy:

The State Department official told us that Wikileaks reveals the brittleness of the balance between necessary secrecy of government and the freedom of the press. He said, memorably, that WikiLeaks was like ‘a cartoon grand piano dropped down upon that arrangement’. A lot of noise and not a little chaos.

The post moves on to make some excellent points about networks and the implications of a networks world…

The Internet is more powerful at amplifying political forces because it connects personal, mass and economic communication networks to one connected communications system – the Internet. This makes these networks more powerful but also more complex, vulnerable and unstable. Whether its WikiLeaks or Wael Ghnomin on Facebook, The Internet is the Uncertainty Principle in Global Relations.

The disruptive effects of the web – the revealed complexity of networks, the speed things spread, that edge ideas move to the mainstream, the altered balances of knowledge and power between individuals and groups – are being seen first in international relations and politics, but it is coming to commercial life too (just ask Bank of America).

Wikileaks may be the prime agent of disruption at the US State Department right now, but it is a manifestation of bigger trend, or set of trends – transparency, web-enabled activist networks, distrust of politicians – rather than the whole story in and of itself. There are other organisations like WIkileaks, they just haven’t made the headlines yet. As for the tools to be able to do what Wikileaks has done – well they are available to anyone.

Privacy and private information – be it your own, or your organisations – is effectively at the mercy of anyone who cares to consider hacking it and making it available. Many people see a public interest case in shining a light on US diplomacy.

Many will see the same case for exposing the workings of large corporations. But how about smaller ones? How about NGOs? How about every single company and local government department? How about patient records? How about your own personal email, social network and bank accounts?

Well, there’s a whole other set of blog posts to be made about the forces that unleashed Wikileaks being taken to their logical conclusions, but what is to be done in preparation? The case studies that are discussed around crisis communications and social media for instance are the often told instances customer revolt and revolting employees. Maybe communicators should be stretching themselves a little and thinking through the implications of when Wikileaks comes to their town.

Immediately we cannot guarantee a secret, the issue becomes about how we do openness, how we do business. The Uncertainty Principle sounds ironically like an organising principle for communications, brand and indeed wider business strategy. Going back to Charlie Beckett’s post, we have to wean our organisations off of certainties if they are to adapt to the complexity of the modern world.