Reproduced from: January 16, 2005 SUNDAY TIMES – DOORS SECTION
Matthew Wall finds that the immediacy of the web is making it simple to forge a new social order.
The internet has given birth to a new power in the land: the online citizen. This new species of activist could be a nurse who specialises in pain management, a small businessman, an oh-so-cool teenager or all manner of mums. They are constrained neither by geography nor social obligation nor class, but instead come together out of choice in civic networks. Though their bonds are virtual — by virtue of existing online — such groups can express their views through collective action without any of the traditional drawbacks.
“Network-empowered citizens”, as Professor Stephen Coleman of the Oxford Internet Institute calls them, can drop in or out of online communities at will, without the tiresome commitments and physical difficulties — turning up to weekly meetings in draughty halls, for instance — associated with participation in real-world communities. Today, he believes, “communities of place seem to be a burden, rather than a haven”.
Yet online networkers can quickly join forces as what we might term benign anarchists, becoming powerful and effective lobbying organisations that government bodies are obliged to listen to.
Individuals can remain anonymous, yet conduct intimate conversations online with like-minded people whom they might never otherwise have met. And these virtual relationships can have a profound effect in the real world, too, by reinvigorating communities.
Soft anarchists in full songTheir ambitions can be modest. Lis Heriz-Smith, from Lynsted, Kent, believes that a community-information website called UK Villages is helping to transform her local community of about 1,000 people. “We were getting fewer and fewer people coming to our fête each year,” she says, by way of example. “But when we advertised it on UK Villages, we had a 50% increase in attendance. We now have people from 15 miles away wanting to set up stalls.”
A website notice is far more accessible to a broader social mix than an advert in a local newsletter or a flyer pinned to a village-hall noticeboard. Heriz-Smith believes that this accessibility is encouraging people from different backgrounds to attend events, from lectures on local history to carol services. “It has got rid of the cliquishness that can affect village life,” she maintains.
UK Villages, set up by Rupert Dick and Ellie Stoneley four years ago, started with £100,000 of funding. It now features local information on 31,500 villages and towns in the UK and regularly attracts 750,000 unique visitors per month.
Summing up the reasons for the site’s success, Stoneley says: “It is free and easy to use, and all the information is relevant to the local community. Anybody can post information, and so take responsibility for it.”
It is a golden rule of the internet that the easier you make an activity, the more likely people are to do it. Remove the usual obstacles to social involvement and people will become more socially involved. The tools of such peer-to-peer conversation are simple: e-mail, online message boards, chat rooms and blogs (topical journals), open to all.
“Our site energises people to talk over the garden fence, even if the fence is a long way away,” Stoneley says. “It’s what the internet was invented for.” This energy is easily channelled into action, as community groups turn to the web to co-ordinate campaigns to keep local post offices open or to stop yet more mobile-phone masts springing up.
Professor Coleman describes the result: “Civic networks emerge in the space beyond government or the market, serving citizens’ need for knowledge that can enable them to be more active, resourceful, creative and influential.”
Such is the reach of UK Villages that government departments, including the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, ask it to carry out surveys on their behalf. The Department of Trade and Industry has even funded a separate section on the website to promote awareness of broadband internet access.
It is the internet’s efficiency at canvassing opinion that particularly interests Neil Almond of Kikass, an online network that aims to bridge the gap between young people and policymakers. The young are notoriously suspicious of any “top-down” means of reaching them, such as traditional broadcasters and commercial websites with password- protected zones. “If you’re only going to put a magazine online, it’s not going to work,” Almond says.
He believes that, for the young, the internet and mobile technology are primarily networking vehicles, enabling them to communicate far more efficiently and effectively than ever before. So, they find themselves enjoying what he calls “online brainstorming”, which arises only because of the informality of these mutually shared meeting places.
“Modern technologies have this amazing potential to get people involved in decision-making,” Almond says. “It’s possible for us to receive the views of 1,000 young people in a matter of half an hour or an hour.” These views can then be fed into the consultative process, leading to better policies, better focused on the generation they target.
Richard Allan, Liberal Democrat spokesman on information technology and MP for Sheffield Hallam, believes that it would be disastrous for politicians and civil servants to ignore online networks. “They are proving much more successful than mainstream political parties and branches of government,” he says. “As the networks grow, party membership dwindles. The message to the parties is stark: evolve or die.”
Yet there is a tendency among government departments and political parties to want to mould civic networks to suit their own purposes.
This is a mistake, Coleman argues: “Rather than telling disengaged citizens that they really ought to become involved in the alien structures, procedures and languages of political authority, there is a strong case for governments to cultivate new engagements with the countless informal networks that stand outside the purview of their official gaze.”
What is anathema to many institutions is the decentralised nature of civic networks. Yet that is the key to their success. Power is exercised by individuals from the grassroots upwards, rather than by an elected elite. Networks exhibit an unprecedentedly pure form of democracy, springing up in response to actual, rather than perceived, need. Netmums, for instance, is a successful community-based online rendezvous for new parents. After four years, the website now has 94 locally edited microsites and 77,000 registered members.
Its co-founder, Sally Russell, says: “The internet is so dynamic — it allows a two-way conversation between members and can be instantly updated by members themselves. So, it enables you to work as a co-operative, rather than just providing information. This is what the net is for.”
Here is the wonderful paradox of the internet: by being both interactive and convenient, it can offer anonymity as well as intimacy. A young mum feeding a baby at 3am can send an e-mail without disturbing anyone, or even conduct silent typed conversations with others who happen to be awake. At no point does she have to know the age, race or social background of the people she interacts with.
The evident success of civic networks shows that they flourish when they are created by the people, for the people, unfiltered and unregulated by any institution, bureaucracy or commercial interest. They are not only reinventing democratic structures, but superseding them.