The gang scene in New Zealand is changing dramatically, and one of the most obvious and interesting shifts is in the use and influence of social media. The gangs have gone online.
When patched gangs came about in New Zealand in the 1960s and 70s, the gang scene was a young person's game, made of rebellious teens and the occasional man in his early 20s.
By the 1980s, a lack of jobs meant the well-oiled exit door provided by employment was drying up, and the advent of facial tattoos began to act as a bonding agent, and so the average age of the gangs began to increase.
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In the early 1990s, the benefits of this maturing membership were becoming obvious: institutional memory lead to a greater number of rules, while events became more sophisticated, and these things held the gangs together and made them attractive.
But slowly, slowly, slowly father time began to work against the gangs. As the average age increased further, the gangs began to lose touch with rebellious youth. Generational barriers were created. I mean, why would a young tearaway in flash sneakers listening to hip hop want to go and hang out with a granddad in hobnail boots headbanging to AC/DC?
With fewer young people interested in joining, the average age only accelerated, and as the older members retired, died, or were kicked out, there weren't the numbers replacing them. The gangs were shrinking. Often assisted by the ravages of methamphetamine addiction, some groups – stalwarts of the New Zealand gang scene – fell over altogether.
But then the resurgence came. That can be pinpointed to events of 2008 – a topic for another column, perhaps – when the scene began to revitalise. Younger people began to don patches and with them came their social media habits.
And as is the case in families, many of the older members took up social media, too. And all of a sudden the gangs were online. Photos of big parties or meetings or hangis. Shots of long motorcycle runs. Images of patchings and the personal milestones of members and their families. All are now widely seen, most noticeably on Facebook, the favourite medium.
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And if this all sound a little familiar, that's because it is. The gangs are using social media in the same ways we all do. This is not a conscious recruitment effort, it is simply an outcome of life in the digital age.
But it has had two profound effects. The first is that it has helped gangs communicate with one another at a very broad level. The brotherhood that existed within different chapters and neighbourhoods can now extend to anywhere in the country – and even different parts of the world. Less inhibited by geography, the gang experience is enhanced by creating easier connections between likeminded members.
The second effect is the widespread promotion of the gang lifestyle. Images of gang parties or motorcycle rides advertised the appeal of the gang by making it look highly attractive. Much like social media more generally, only the best bits are highlighted, giving a hyper-attractive reality.
More than that it has increased the scope of membership. The gangs have become visible and attractive to a wider span of people. And this has opened the door to a new pool of potential members.
Where the gangs' membership in the 80s and 90s was almost exclusively drawn from among the country's most heavily marginalised – those with backgrounds mired in the drivers of crime – we are seeing evidence now of people beyond those fringes joining the gangs. In reality it is largely just a step into the lower-middle classes, but without question there are people in the scene now who don't fit the old stereotypes.
So the growth in gangs of late has been because the gangs have become more relevant to people, and in part they have become cool. And in the same way the generational barriers extenuated the gang decline, these new trends are not only a reflection of the growth in the scene but are also propelling it.
Of course, this is not the fault of Facebook and its mates. Social media can promote the positive and much as it promotes the negative. But its influence in this area is certainly undeniable.
• Dr Jarrod Gilbert is the Director of Criminal Justice at the University of Canterbury and the lead researcher at Independent Research Solutions.