Building online communities to change the world.


Sometimes campaigning for change in the world feels so futile. Like being swept away by a tidal wave of advertising for products that we don't need, whose manufacture destroys the earth that sustains us, and which alienate us from our true selves and our true communities.

The amounts of money involved are so vast that they become meaningless. They serve the purposes of a global elite who don't seem to care what happens to the world in which we live, who view the poor as expendable and whose policies have wrecked economies around the world.

It's a system that seems so all encompassing that we're all part of it unless we opt for extreme detachment from so many aspects of modern life. Our travel, communication, energy needs, even for most of us the food we eat make us dependent on what we are trying to change.

However there is hope. The fightback is ongoing, and in the end I'm convinced it will win, not because it is better resourced, but because it is right. There will be myriad attempts to discredit it, subvert it, co-opt it and turn its truths into slogans to sell more jeans... but I'm sure people will see through this.

Buliding community to bring change

The resistance to the forces that seek to dehumanise us has always been there - from indigenous people fighting to protect their traditional ways of life, to civil rights activists and trades unionists the world over fighting for equality and a fair day's pay for a fair day's work. Recently however something has changed, which is having a huge impact. All these disparate groups are getting connected and sharing their ideas and experiences, out of which is evolving a global movement to create a better world, Occupy movements in North America, student movements in Latin America, women's rights campaigners here in India and many more.

Real change almost always needs someone on the ground putting themselves on the line, but the power of the Internet is to amplify the impact, and place once isolated struggles into a wider context.

The Arab Spring happened because people came out onto the streets and proved that people should not be afraid of their governments, governments should be afraid of their people. However revelations of corruption from WikiLeaks made them angry enough to get on the streets; an uprising of anger across social media made people feel the safety in numbers required to challenge authority openly; social media tools helped them organise the details of protests at short notice so their movements were unexpected; and once they were there the almost instant replay of Twitter and Youtube meant that the world watched what happened unmediated by the traditional media gatekeepers. Sadly that's not always enough as we see in the tragic events unfolding in Syria. It was chaotic, unpredictable and imperfect - we still don't know what the end result will look like - but few would argue for a return to what was there before.

Last year (2012) saw Internet use pass ⅓ of the global population - that is predicted to pass 50% of the world's population before the end of the decade. The implications of this are profound - the power of the network is based on the number of connections not the number of nodes (internet users), so this will mean an exponential increase in the number of connections between people.

It's also important to look at who those new people will be. They will largely come from the developing world, many of them from India. These will be people who have traditionally been excluded, whose voices have not been heard and who have often been on the receiving end of some of the worst practices of the powerful. Their stories will all of a sudden enter the global conversation.

The point is soon approaching where the majority of the world's population will be able to talk to each other without a filter put in place by authority - we will be free to communicate and form communities as we wish. This is the antithesis of the passive consumer, it's the engaged citizen.

People choose to spend their time online more proactively, they produce content not just consume, they build communities, they share stories and they mobilise around issues that impact them. A click on a petition is a sign to the outside world of what the community thinks on an issue, but it's also the starting point of a journey where people can come together and organise to solve their common problems.

I suppose it's the sense of possibility inherent in these communities that makes me believe that things can change for the better. People crave community, they want authenticity, the hollow promises of consumerism are just that - hollow, and deep down we all know that, no matter how much money corporations spend telling us otherwise.


James works with the digital media team at Greenpeace.