Make sure you can speak freely

Online groups should try to maintain their own sites rather than piggy-backing off other sites like

Many of the strategies, techniques and tools that have been developed in the last ten years of mainstream web use are struggling to make the transition to the Web 2.0 world.

Media sites have had to turn from being one-way publishers of information into conversational spaces while more and more of us are using social network sites to manage aspects of our online and offline lives. We seize on new services (like Twitter and Seesmic), new sites (like Dopplr) and new platforms (especially the mobile web), caring little for the privacy implications, learning curves or complexity of the relationships we are now able to build.

This is a real challenge for services built by volunteer groups and local sites that seek to reflect their community, because they may have neither the expertise nor the desire to embrace the Web 2.0 world, but at the same time they want to offer something useful and engaging to their users.

And not everyone is as lucky as MySociety, with some of the world’s best programmers and database experts working on their projects.

One possibility is just to piggy-back on the sites that are already out there, and many groups already use YouTube to host their video content, run a blog on Blogger or Typepad, manage mailing lists through Google Groups, and work within the limitations of their chosen platform. Many political campaigns now have Facebook pages to carry the message, and some seem to be entirely Facebook-based.

Doing this is an attractive and low-cost option, but it carries several risks. The first, and most obvious, is that uploading content onto one of these services puts it into someone else’s hands, and the terms of the license you agree to when you hand over your pictures, videos, documents or memberships list may not be very balanced. Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Bebo and the rest all reserve the right to use your work for their own marketing and promotional purposes, for example.

You’re also stuck with the terms and conditions imposed by these commercial services, with no real redress if they decide to close down your group, censor your video or remove your carefully crafted campaign material. By and large these sites are less interested in free speech than in building their user base, selling advertisements and making money. If your group’s desire for self-expression conflicts with that then you will not be welcome.

A better model is to have your own site and your own service, but to use the various free offerings, social network sites and the rest as amplifiers and backups. If you have your own blog then putting videos on YouTube means you never have to worry about hitting bandwidth limits, but if you make sure that people watch them through your site by embedding them in posts then if YouTube gets nasty you can move to another service without losing your audience.

It may require more programming expertise, but even here some rather sophisticated software is freely available to download. It’s fairly straightforward to install Wordpress on a rented server, giving you an easily-tailored blog with widgets, embedded content, trackbacks and comments, all under your control. And if you run your own mailing list, however basic, then you can decide when and how to send messages instead of relying on Facebook’s clumsy facilities.

It may not be necessary to seize the means of digital production in order to change the online world, but these days it’s wise to have your own small factory – or rather, server - in case you come up against the limits imposed by the commercial providers.

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For the first time in my life I have a sworn enemy – and I don’t even know her name

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

Last month, I made an enemy. I do not say this lightly, and I certainly don’t say it with pride, as a more aggressive male might. Throughout my life I have avoided confrontation with a scrupulousness that an unkind observer would call out-and-out cowardice. A waiter could bring the wrong order, cold and crawling with maggots, and in response to “How is everything?” I’d still manage a grin and a “lovely, thanks”.

On the Underground, I’m so wary of being a bad citizen that I often give up my seat to people who aren’t pregnant, aren’t significantly older than me, and in some cases are far better equipped to stand than I am. If there’s one thing I am not, it’s any sort of provocateur. And yet now this: a feud.

And I don’t even know my enemy’s name.

She was on a bike when I accidentally entered her life. I was pushing a buggy and I wandered – rashly, in her view – into her path. There’s little doubt that I was to blame: walking on the road while in charge of a minor is not something encouraged by the Highway Code. In my defence, it was a quiet, suburban street; the cyclist was the only vehicle of any kind; and I was half a street’s length away from physically colliding with her. It was the misjudgment of a sleep-deprived parent rather than an act of malice.

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

I was stung by what someone on The Apprentice might refer to as her negative feedback, and walked on with a redoubled sense of the parental inadequacy that is my default state even at the best of times.

A sad little incident, but a one-off, you would think. Only a week later, though, I was walking in a different part of town, this time without the toddler and engrossed in my phone. Again, I accept my culpability in crossing the road without paying due attention; again, I have to point out that it was only a “close shave” in the sense that meteorites are sometimes reported to have “narrowly missed crashing into the Earth” by 50,000 miles. It might have merited, at worst, a reproving ting of the bell. Instead came a familiar voice. “IT’S YOU AGAIN!” she yelled, wrathfully.

This time the shock brought a retort out of me, probably the harshest thing I have ever shouted at a stranger: “WHY ARE YOU SO UNPLEASANT?”

None of this is X-rated stuff, but it adds up to what I can only call a vendetta – something I never expected to pick up on the way to Waitrose. So I am writing this, as much as anything, in the spirit of rapprochement. I really believe that our third meeting, whenever it comes, can be a much happier affair. People can change. Who knows: maybe I’ll even be walking on the pavement

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood