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Can't stop the blog: what the internet has done for ideas

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By Laurie Penny
The people of Britain understand the political potential of the internet like nobody else in the West. We have a ferocious craving for democratic involvement, in part because we have been denied it for so long within our democracy, and electronic engagement offers us a voice where our own government does not.

The unique circumstances in which the United States was created has led to the overwhelming impression that the North American government, whatever its flaws, is of the people and by the people. In Britain, by contrast, government is still an arm of the elite, operating by mandate of the crown. Last week, 'The Unspoken Constitution', a document drawn up by Westminster insiders and journalists to expose our country's painful lack of a just and concrete political settlement, was published and disseminated online - just like nearly every dissenting element of British political thought. It is because we do not feel that we own a stake in our own democracy that the internet holds an unique fascination for the British as a nation.

Last week, the power of the internet over the British political imagination spread its infectious energy to the world. First, there was Trafigura. When the London law firm Carter-Ruck obtained an order to ban the Guardian newspaper from reporting on Trafigura's dumping of toxic waste , millions of internet users fought to keep the information public - and won. Trafigura and Carterruck became trending topics on the social networking site Twitter, bloggers across the world published their own research into the cover-up, and Carter-Ruck found itself unable to contain the spread of information. The firm has withdrawn its gagging order, and international attention has been drawn to social and environmental abuses which might otherwise have slipped under the radar.

Then on Thursday Jan Moir, a columnist for ultra right-wing newspaper The Daily Mail, published an hatefully homophobic article claiming that pop star Stephen Gateley's sudden death from a congenital heart condition could not have been "natural", despite the coroner's ruling - because Gateley was civilly partnered to another man. The tweetosphere and blogosphere mobilised in disgust at Moir's column, again forcing a reaction from both the media elite and the international community, with retailers such as Nestle and Marks & Spencer withdrawing their advertising from the newspaper to distance themselves from Moir's intolerance. The Press Complaints Commission received 21,000 complaints about the article in a single weekend - more than it usually receives in five years. As blogger Iain Dale tweeted on Thursday: "Jan Moir's career has died of perfectly natural causes."

The latest instalment of the Welsh-American webcomic 'bunny', entitled 'Can't Stop the Blog', sums up the situation perfectly, with two suited figures under attack by giant blue birds that resemble the Twitter logo. For British users of the incongruously named site, the sudden sense of power in a progressive online consensus is thrilling.

Despite - or perhaps because of - our lust for freedom of collective expression, Britain boasts some of the strictest libel laws in the world. Trafigura was not the first international company to attempt to exploit this fact to its advantage, nor will it be the last. The state has good reason to tremble at the possibility of its populace being allowed to share opinions at speed. When the last earth-shattering communications revolution, the printing press, finally achieved widespread uptake in the 17th century, the explosion of handbills, newsheets, satire and subversive literature helped to catalyse a decade of bloody civil war. In a very real sense, moveable type set in motion the dire and righteous machinery whose trajectory ended on a cold January morning in 1649 with the killing of a king.

The American abolitionist Wendell Phillips once said that '"What gunpowder did for war, the printing press has done for the mind." The internet has had the equivalent impact of the advent of atomic warfare on the world of ideas, making individual thinkers part of a chain reaction whose power can be immediate and devastating. Marshall McLuhan observed in 'The Gutenberg Galaxy that "societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication". The British are desperate to see our creakily ancient institutions - newspapers and political parties dominated by wealthy Oxbridge graduates and a parliamentary system where official communication between the two houses is still overseen by the hereditary figure of Black Rod - reshaped by the internet.

Slowly, that reshaping is beginning to happen. Last year, Britain watched in awe as Barack Obama's presidential campaign demonstrated the power of the internet to effect change, and activists of all stripes have determined to learn from the campaign: advisers on internet strategy for Obama/Biden '08 are still swamped by requests to speak at seminars and conferences in the UK. Moreover, the boldness of online commentators and independent auditors this year has inspired British media institutions, particularly the Guardian group and the Daily Telegraph, to embrace for the first time in decades the duty of keeping the government and law enforcement honest.

The process is achingly slow. One Twitter user commented that "when Twitter campaigns lead to people voting 1 way or another then I'll be excited. It's just off starting blocks till then." But a groundswell of online grumblers is gradually changing the shape of British politics.

We have always been a nation of grumblers, gossipers and whiners. Thirty centuries of being invaded by nearly everyone, ruled over by bloodthirsty fops in stupid tights and incessantly rained on will do that to you. Now that Britain has the highest percentage of internet users in the world, with 79.8% of the country's population connected, we finally have a chance to turn our national pastime of whinging into a focused endeavour. October 2009 may well go down in history as the month when Whitehall and the world learned not to underestimate the power of several million Brits grumbling as one.

Laurie Penny is a writer and columnist for the British progressive website LabourList. She blogs at PennyRed.

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