Close your eyes and think of a protest. What do you see?
It might be the Chartists or the Jarrow marchers of previous generations, the Countryside Alliance and fuel protesters of the noughties, or the students who took to the streets in 2010. Perhaps you picture placards on the streets, long marches to Number 10 or noisy demonstrations outside of Parliament. Or maybe it is something closer to home; a campaign to save a pub, a park or a local school. Protest is woven so deeply into the tapestry of Britain's political history - and is such crucial grit in the oyster of our democratic system - that it can be easy to assume it is unchanging. But as the Internet opens up our politics and starts to alter the rules of the Westminster game, how we protest and how we challenge power are both being altered too.
When I think of protest, I think of Lindsey Garrett. Lindsey used Change.org to take the story of 93 families threatened with homelessness in east London to a national audience - saving their homes, taking their views to heart of government and igniting the debate about the UK's housing situation in one fell swoop. And it's just one example of how the internet is handing back the power to campaign and win directly to individuals.
Since we launched Change.org here in 2011, we've been thinking a lot about how the web can empower our users to campaign and win on the issues they care about. In this journal some of those users tell their stories - explaining how they freed imprisoned relatives, challenged entrenched sexism, or fought to give a voice to the Yazidi women and girls - some of the most vulnerable people in the Middle East. Along the way, they have provoked fierce argument, held power to account and become part of a trend that is seeing the Internet forge new models of protest and political activism.
At the heart of this trend is the Internet's unremitting ability to decentralise power from elites to everyone. The barriers to entry for political protest are being flattened, while sites like ours are proving that anyone with a laptop and a story to tell can start, run and win a campaign on whatever issue matters to them. In the UK, Change.org users now win 50 campaigns a month. Globally, they win a victory every hour. We've barely started to tap the internet's power as a campaign tool, but it's already pushing political power down and out to where it belongs - into the hands of ordinary people.
So what lessons can politicians and protesters learn from the success of people like Lindsey who have used the web to win? The first is the power of openness. Change.org is successful because anyone can use it. This openness has helped to build a user base from all over the political spectrum - as well as millions of people who don't think in terms of political spectrums - at a time when so many are disillusioned with the closed nature of Westminster party politics.
Politics has got to become more comfortable about people engaging with issues and ideas on a scale that suits them - often supporting individual ideas without signing up to ideologies. When people start or support a campaign on a site like Change.org they do so because it gives them control over the level of their involvement. For many, this means clicking and sharing with their friends on Facebook while for others, it might lead to joining a demonstration in the offline world, raising funds for a cause or lobbying their MP. What is crucial is that by creating tools that are quick and easy to use and which allow millions to have their voice heard easily on any issue, you create much wider, richer conversations about politics and power.
The second is about the role of stories in helping people grapple with huge issues. The problems of the world can often seem intractably large and complex. Climate change, injustice or sexism cannot always be understood, much less solved, with a magic bullet or a single click. But personal stories like the ones which sit behind some of the most powerful petitions on our site can help to bring these issues to life and root them in everyday experience. When you do this at scale, you create the space for hundreds of thousands of small protests and petitions to become countless campaign victories. Taken in aggregate, these micro-movements are starting to create some very big changes indeed.
Two months ago, Luke Henry started a petition because his 9-year-old daughter Bethany has a rare life-threatening illness but has been denied funding for a drug that could save her life. A week later Andy Longfellow also started a petition for his daughter, Abi. Abi also has a life-threatening rare disease but didn't qualify for treatment either, until her father's campaign won and the medicine was provided. Now another family has started a petition too, for their son Luis. These families live miles apart but have found each other on Change.org and supporting each other to create changes that will benefit many more families.
A winning petition to stop Oxford City Council criminalising rough sleepers started by student Freya Turner led to Zahria Patel starting and winning a similar campaign in Hackney. Both won their local petitions and are now working together to take their campaign to a national level. Westminster struggles with this style of politics. It is open, noisy and pays no heed to party lines. But these unplanned, open, online movements are a new way to make sure everyone's voice can be heard at every level of the political process - with each victorious petition starter inspiring the next.
When Change.org launched in the UK we did so with the belief that by giving anyone the campaigning tools that big organisations have people would win change on their own terms. As small campaigns start to merge together and become greater than the sum of their parts, we're catching a glimpse of the future; a people-centred politics that is challenging the status quo and changing how we think about power and protest in the 21st century.
This article was originally published by The Brewery at freuds, in partnership withChange.org. Read the full publication here.