A subculture in the cybersalons

Across the internet, weblogs, forums, news groups and magazines are helping to reinvigorate civic pa

Cyberspace boasts strange dimensions. When people write or talk about it, they convey a vast ethereal space that continually expands as packets of electronic data fly all over the world. Advertisements show numbers streaming across cities, beams shooting around the globe and networks throwing out connections to make one huge multifaceted grid, more complex and intricate, it seems, than the real world.

Yet far from replicating geographical distance and multi-plying density, the internet shrinks physical and mental space. Moreover, it compresses the connections between political representatives and the public. In the past, political decisions seemed to take place on a stage far away, viewable only to the few with a VIP box or a backstage pass. The internet, however, changed the stage into a forum and opened the floor to everyone. All we need to enter the arena is a computer and an internet connection.

But new media will not automatically reinvigorate democracy and civic participation if we use it only to broadcast passive and dense political data. People may have an internet connection and all the information they could ever need at their fingertips, but this does not guarantee that they will re-engage with civil society or political structures. They may just prefer to shop, play games or download music and films.

To use new media effectively to reconnect people to civil society, we need a magic combination: access to accurate information and the desire to read and act upon it. The best way to inspire people to act is to provide them with the visible results of their actions. People engage when they feel people in power hear and heed their voices, when they feel politicians truly value their participation and directly recognise it.

Some political figures and organisations have already taken up this challenge. Three MPs - Crispin Blunt, David Laws and John McFall - have teamed up with ePolitix to establish a constituency forum on their personal ePolitix web page, a project that has allowed the MPs to debate issues online, and through e-mail, with their constituents, local leaders and the media.

The Hansard Society's tellparliament.net initiative invites members of the public to provide evidence to House of Commons select committees. On a smaller scale, sites such as theyworkforyou.com and downingstreetsays.com allow users to comment upon the issues raised by the information they provide.

These services have obvious uses; journalists and activists are a ready-made market for them. Until recently, researching issues and statements in House of Commons debates was time consuming. Today, thanks to new media, the process is nearly instantaneous. As a consequence, the people we rely on to inform us are now more informed than ever.

But the availability of this information has had another, unusual and possibly unforeseen, outcome: it feeds a new and dynamic layer of political engagement. Across the internet, and covering the full spectrum of opinion, there are weblogs, forums, news groups and magazines that constitute a second tier of political discussion that informs and involves ordinary web users.

In many cases, the people behind these projects are politically committed individuals who stand outside of the establishment. Their passion and idiomatic language form a bridge between the opaque political sphere and the world of the general public.

The internet has thus created an entirely new subculture, a cross-generational and international body of individuals helping to re-energise the political arena. As with the participants of any subculture, the mem-bers of this group act as evangelists. They spread the seeds of political engagement, reinforce accountability and advance the underlying principles they espouse. In recent years, we have seen a range of causes, from Iraq to Israel, from guns to Guantanamo, picked up and dissected in this new sub- culture's cybersalons.

The internet has indeed given us a new civic space: a forum that is often raucous but reinvigorates a once staid political environment. As people grow accustomed to the idea that their opinions will be given credence online, as they see recognition paid to those who engage, many will slowly step into this arena - feeling, at last, as though their presence is important.

Alex Greenwood is the editor of ak13.com