Thomas Boeschoten – Project X Haren: Participation and Mobilization on Facebook

Thomas Boeschoten is a Dutch new media researcher, currently in Utrecht University’s New Media & Digital Culture program and involved with the Utrecht Data School. He was part of a committee that was formed after the 2011 riots in Haren, following a widely distributed announcement of a party there that originated on Facebook. In his talk at the Unlike Us #3 conference, Boeschoten gave an overview of his work within this committee and the findings of their investigation.

The party, dubbed “Project X Haren”, originally started as a Sweet Sixteen birthday celebration for a Dutch girl named Merte. As is often the case, she created an event on Facebook to invite her friends, and made it easy for friends to help inviting the right people by setting the event to be publicly visible and open to outside invitations.  However, it quickly went viral – people started inviting strangers and thousands of people indicated that they would be attending. Merte’s father tried to salvage the event by deleting the Facebook event, but the damage was done; quickly a new event was created, and again thousands of people committed to it.

The party itself saw a few thousand people going to Haren, where the event in the end culminated in riots; cars were burning, stones were thrown and there were fights between the police and the rioters. Boeschoten and the committee he was part of were tasked with investigating these events and seeing how such riots could be prevented in the future.

Several factors were found. Facebook’s interface, for example, makes it very easy to both spread the word about an event to many people and to publicly declare that one is going to it; this creates an environment where through a network effect over 200.000 people could be invited within days. Other factors in fact had little to do with social media: the weather was good on the day of the party, it was on a friday when many students could use their free travel student card and the party location could easily be reached through public transport. Boeschoten noted that it is therefore important not to focus only on Facebook as a reason for the escalation of events; external factors played a large role as well.

For instance, many other media and other social networks contributed to the rapid spread of the party announcement as well. It was mentioned in popular talk shows, which obviously reached a lot of people; attendees also used applications like WhatsApp and networks like Twitter to spread the news to others in a more direct way. Moreover, another party was set to take place nearby; while it is hard to say exactly what kind of influence this had, it is to be expected that there is some kind of relation, especially as Boeschoten’s research revealed that most people attending Project X in fact lived relatively close to Haren. It was this interaction between social media, traditional media and circumstantial factors that in the end made Project X such a “success”.

According to Boeschoten, the main point to take away from the committee’s findings is that the focus on Facebook as a major factor in the escalation of Merte’s Sweet Sixteen party is not sufficient for a comprehensive analysis. While Facebook played an important role, as it offered youths a potent way of organizing themselves, a lot of other factors were involved as well – many of them not related to social media or internet. This combination of a relatively innocent premise, attention from traditional media, the affordances of new media and suitable external factors made for an event the likes of which hadn’t been seen before – which is exactly why a lot of people joined; it was a once in a lifetime opportunity, you just had to be there. It’s what Boeschoten called the “YOLO factor” – visiting what was supposed to be a nice sixteenth birthday party with thousands of people not even related to the host is a fairly ridiculous prospect, but hey – You Only Live Once.