Saturday saw a reversal of recent trends as online petition builder 38degrees unleashed newly recruited local groups not into cyberspace but High Streets. This suggests awakening to the self-limiting nature of digital platforms, as Internet-savvy sought to sign up real live shoppers to their petition to save the NHS. Worthy? Perhaps. Effective? Possibly. Meaningful? Probably not.
38degrees, Avaaz, Change.org and others have recently provided another release valve for those of us who rail at the TV, despair of the papers and are disenchanted with those supposed to represent us. They have been more useful than this, too, in helping those who look to determine which of the issues proffered may make best petition fodder, by virtue of attracting the most support (at least from those taking the trouble to engage with their processes).
But when a signature chaser seeks to win over a doubter with a dubious claim that this type of petitioning is nonpolitical, what is the point; why sign? Where do the thousands of signatures seeking to protect the NHS get us unless they influence politicians with the power to change or defend?
I confess to rather liking these alternative ways of connecting non-geographically. It is interesting to note now, though, this migration to offline organising. This is surely a sign of political intent? It suggests an appetite for a new way of gathering like-minded opinion, both on the part of the promoters and of their members. But again, what is to be done with the evidence or their demands? Lots of agreement going nowhere?
Surely the best lessons to be drawn from this exploration of the capabilities of the Internet are that (a) (some) people like them and (b) political parties ought to wake up and make greater use of them. Only elected, accountable representatives, can really be said to have our permission to make decisions, either for or against change, on our behalf. When we do not like their decisions we must be able to replace them. Petitions, single issue activism and shouting at the TV all have their place but only as tools to help us to have our representatives listen and respond, instead of serving their own narrow experience. They cannot replace elected parties. Maybe they aim to become them but right now this is far away.