Online activism and engagement can work locally too

Luke Bozier argues that Netroots UK was a success and offers practical advice for the future, looking at how online activism can work on a local level.

Luke Bozier is the managing director of and authors the blog

I agree with Will Straw when he says that Netroots UK on Saturday at the TUC in London was a success. The workshops were exciting, a varied and wide range of people were in attendance and the two plenary sessions were both interesting. Having said that, the balance between discussing the message and the medium was leaning clearly toward the message, and that was especially evident when the plenary sessions were opened for questions from the floor.

Plainly, the message is a hugely important aspect of Netroots, but a bit more focus on the medium and specific technical guidance for delegates would have been welcomed I thought. The left is ready for the political battles ahead; there’s a willingness to reframe the political debate around the Coalition’s macroeconomic choices and bring the public into that debate as much as possible.

Activists now need practical advice & tools in order to start shifting that debate, and I’d like to have seen more practical direction at Netroots UK. With that in mind, I myself took part in quite a practical panel looking at how progressive activists can use technology on a “hyper-local” level to rally existing activists, engage with non-political citizens and widen the support base locally.

I outlined ways which local activists could build a ‘meaningful local web presence, without the cost’, using open source software.

The rationale behind engaging politically online on a local level is clear:

– 69% of all UK households have broadband. In 2014, which is a crucial year politically, 83% of households are forecast to be connected. The web is where the eyes of the nation are, and to capture the audience you now have to be online; (

– More than half of all 24-44 year olds regularly post comments or content to blogs or discussion sites. Clearly these people have opinions they want heard, and they’re interested in politics on an issue-by-issue basis rather than a party-political basis; (OxiS

In 2009, 16% of all web users contacted a politician directly via the Internet. That’s more than six million people, which shows that the web is not just useful for engaging activists but also the public directly; (

– Three million people made online donations in 2009 – six times the combined membership of the three large parties, and 20% of web users signed a petition in the same year. It’s clear that people are awake to the civic & political potential of the web; (

– “All politics is local”! People who aren’t politically engaged can get engaged quite quickly when there is a local bugbear they want sorting. The first port of call is a Google search, which is a fantastic opportunity for local parties to demonstrate their good local work (and potentially gain new supporters) by publishing relevant content online;

– Whilst the web is great for engaging with citizens directly, it is a very useful tool for organising and rallying your existing network of activists and supporters. A local web presence for activists provides a strong focal point for the existing community.

How do you go about getting this “meaningful” hyper-local web presence for your local party, voluntary or issues-based organisation? Importantly, how do you do it without spending a fortune. What are the tools you can use today to get your local web presence going?

– WordPress is the ideal base for any website. It’s robust, free, open source and is a great content management system as well as blogging software. There are thousands of free plugins you can use to get your site to do pretty much anything you want. I thoroughly recommend downloading WordPress to your web hosting and giving it a try.

– The Buddypress plugin for WordPress allows you to turn any WordPress site into a Facebook-style mini social networking site for your group. Members can create profiles, groups can be formed and the package gives you, without spending a penny, the full features of a social networking site.

– Build an email list with the free “Subscribe2” plugin for WordPress. You want to capture the email addresses of those local residents who accidentally end up on your site when they Google a local issue, to involved them later. Subscribe2 isn’t the only good email plugin for WordPress but it’s pretty good.

– Solicit donations via the web with PayPal. PayPal can integrate with WordPress, and it’s not just for paying for eBay purchases. It’s safe and secure and allows people to donate to your group with their debit cards or bank accounts. Some people might prefer to donate locally than to an anonymous national organisation.

– Forget Murdoch, create your own multimedia channel with YouTube and Flickr. Upload lots of photos, and instead of long, boring PDFs record 60-second videos explaining a position, activity or latest news. They both integrate nicely with WordPress, so supporters and new visitors can find out what you’ve been up to without reading copious amounts of text.

These were the five practical tips I gave in my Netroots presentation. As you can see they all revolve around WordPress – a great foundation for almost any website, and has high profile users around the world. I also mentioned Facebook “pages”, which are useful but as yet don’t have as much utility on a hyper-local level (how many neighbours do you have as friends on Facebook?) – they are, however, good for raising your group’s profile on Google as most Facebook pages are included in Google results.

In conclusion, the reasoning for putting more effort into your local online activity is clear. You don’t have to wait for national organisations to do the job for you; the tools you need are free and accessible. With a smidgeon of technical knowledge and a few spare hours, your local group can be online, and be online well. It may not be perfect, but it will be a good start on which you can build. So get started, take your progressive message out to your local area, embrace the local power of the web.

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