Croydon riots cleanup

What really lit up Britain?

London is smouldering after days of arson and looting, and some British cities are still in flames. Yet the police are failing to investigate a key culprit in the fires.

That’s oxygen.

I guarantee you this: In every fire that was lit, oxygen will have been found present, a key catalyst in the reaction that lit up the United Kingdom.

Does that seem ridiculous? I don’t mean to make light of a vast human tragedy gripping one of the world’s largest industrialized societies. But I feel like we do exactly that when we wring our hands over the role of the Internet in the London riots.

Did people communicate by BlackBerry? Did they post photos on Facebook? Did they wax sarcastic on Twitter? Of course they did. These are the common tools of modern society. And yet in media coverage, they’re treated as novelties. (On this point, we’re as guilty as the rest.)

The tools which we use to communicate and form communities aren’t alien artifacts. They’re oxygen.

With such troubles gripping the world, it’s no wonder we want to escape—from school, into space, or deep into the fantasy worlds of role-playing games. Reality is too harsh.

Kudos to Dylan Ratigan for giving voice to the insanity of our modern society. I used to appear as a guest on Ratigan’s CNBC show, and I remember him as a straitlaced voice of reason. Perhaps rage is the only sensible reaction to such madness.

We’ve been joking a lot about memes in The Daily Dot newsroom. On Saturday, the Web turned 20. In 1991, I was in college; some of my reporters weren’t even in kindergarten at the time.

“A cliché is what old people call a meme,” I told them as I explained a crusty joke about doctors and playing the piano.

When we first talked about memes, we used to mean grand ideas that swept through society: the theory of evolution. They seem to have devolved of late. Reddit, the social news site, is fighting a war on memes—which have come to mean quick-and-dirty images tagged with funny captions, as a way of expressing peoples’ clever reactions to the news. What became a whimsical twist on the typical rant is overtaking a site that once thrived on text.

Can memes save us? On Twitter, the civic-minded are urging us to #prayforlondon, using hashtags to organize cleanup and relief efforts. A hashtag is at once a meme and a spontaneous society, linked through messages and a common purpose. Or cross-purposes — sometimes people fight over hashtags and try to hijack them for their own ends.

But that’s how we form community today. The streets may be aflame, with fear and chaos momentarily separating us. But we can weave threads of connection online that promise to one day thicken into a fabric. A shred of hope today; a ream of promise tomorrow.

From Our VICE Partners

Pure, uncut internet. Straight to your inbox.