The 'Big Society' is happening - online

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It was timely that the launch of the latest Oxford Internet Survey coincided with the debate in the Commons over releasing all documents about the Hillsborough disaster. The debate came about because of a well supported online petition which, as the survey points out, is the most popular form of political participation online.

What's fascinating (and worrying) is that the survey otherwise suggests that political and civic participation really has not caught on online - even in the general election last year. Signing a petition is by far the most common activity, at just 18%. Other activities like contacting a political party or joining a civic association online are a low 5% or even less.

Compare that to shopping online: 86% of internet users bought online in the past year. Paying bills online ranks at 57%, but when it comes to a council tax bill or parking fine it drops to 24%. It raises important questions about how successfully central and local government have engaged the public online.

But I wonder if the researchers are asking the right questions or looking in the right place.

My own sense of civic participation online is much richer. In my community in Shepherds Bush, London, there's a whole online ecology of civic and/or political activity with a small p.

Take, for example, the excellent Shepherds Bush Blog; or the energetic campaign to stop council plans for skyscrapers along the Thames at Hammersmith; and small business websites like the Askew Business Network which campaigns as well as connects. And that's just three, in one London postcode.

Of course London is full of the next-generation internet users that the OxIS report headlines. But I know of communities all over the country where the internet has provided the medium for people to communicate, connect and campaign. That's where the 'Big Society' is happening and where the professional politicians need to begin to catch up.

Fiona Anderson is the television writing coach at the BBC College of Journalism.

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