The Internet: Fine for Shopping, Not Allowed for Important Stuff

18/11/2013 12:39 GMT | Updated 23/01/2014 23:58 GMT

There was an in-depth look at global campaigning movement Avaaz in Sunday's Observer. Its founder, Ricken Patel, was interviewed about how it builds movements online to secure change. It was a generally fascinating piece, but the headline was bothersome to me - "Can Online Activism Really Change the World?". Another piece about Avaaz in G2 earlier this year carried a similar headline. In fact, when it comes to politics and the internet, campaigners generally seem to be expected to answer this question before any other.

In a parallel universe I wonder if a Sunday newspaper is running an interview with a really successful retail magnate, asking "Is online retail really shopping?" It might ask whether shopping was far more powerful and legitimate when shoppers trudged about in the pouring rain buying stuff. Now we can hit click and it arrives the next day, we have become a bunch of lazy ignoramuses who don't understand the true meaning of shopping.

Campaigning and activism is, of course, different to shopping. It is about meaningful thoughts and ideas and sometimes life and death. Inspiring action based on values is not the same as flogging a pair of trainers. But where big brands are perfectly welcome, it seems, to straddle on and offline, people trying to change the world or want to support someone else's effort to do so are judged differently - expected to put in harder yards and struggle more and get told that they're just "using the internet".

By calling it "online activism" its value is measured by inputs and method, not the outcomes and impact. On average, two users win their campaigns every week - from Caroline Criado Perez's now infamous women on banknotes petition to this one with a mighty 16 signatures (both of which, like almost all successful camapigns, had both on and offline elements to them). People who never thought of themselves as political are getting into politics and causes more than they ever have been and they're staying engaged. Agendas are being set, power structures challenged, status quos disrupted. It's been a genuine shot in the arm for political engagement, but still some people snipe from the sidelines.

When it comes to fighting the good fights, why do people think using the internet is less valid or even a dark art? It's an unpragmatic view - why when you're trying to convince as many people as possible to back your cause would you not use the web? The internet's not exactly new, but digital elements to election campaigns are often written about with an air of mystified reverence and are, almost uniformly, compared to Barack Obama's presidential campaign as though he's the only person with a message who decided to tweet it.

The best campaigns work seamlessly across on and offline, acknowledging clearly that peoples lives exist in both worlds. It might be Lucy Holmes's No More Page 3 campaign building an online movement then organising local groups and demonstrations or the mum from Glasgow whose 7,000 strong - powered campaign to save her son's schooling convinced Glasgow council to change its mind. Either way, the distinction between on and offline is blurred to almost non-existence.

There are other powerful arguments about the accessibility of the internet too. Jayne Linney, who has run a number of campaigns around welfare cuts, and is predominantly housebound, told me that she's seen the positive impact the web has had on disabled activists: The web, she says, helps her and fellow campaigners "share ideas, worries and queries; it has alleviated the isolation I can feel and has helped boost self esteem by allowing people to work on projects that make an actual difference; and then a feeling that people have collectively achieved something."

Sometimes it feels like the people who get snippy about accessible forms of engagement are actually worried about too many people getting involved, about the disengaged actually being brought into causes that were previously the preserve of a select and informed few. The web has opened up politics to everyone and we should be embracing it.

Facebook likes don't change the world, nor do petition signatures or retweets - or, for that matter, demonstrations or marches. What does change the world is groups of people taking collective action, building powerful movements and creating strategic campaigns around causes they believe in. For modern social justice movements to be successful, we need to reach more people that care about these issues and make it easy for them to get involved and take meaningful actions. To do that, we need to use the internet more, not less.

Engagement with brands, politics, causes and each other now exists equally on and offline: there isn't online campaigning anymore - there's just campaigning.