Commitment needs to be more than mouse deep
THE roots of heritage are extremely deep in Britain and correspondingly strong. When Athena last counted, there were some 7,000 heritage groups in the UK bringing together more than seven million people as members, volunteers, staff and trustees. In England, more than a third of adults have taken some sort of action to protect a local building or local place from damaging change, disuse or dereliction.
Much of this intrepid work is small-scale and locally focused, taking the form of civic societies or building-preservation trusts. It has a national structure as well, however. There are, for example, more than 100 national organisations that champion specific eras or celebrate niche interests such as ships, gardens, chapels and cinemas.
There is no questioning the immense value of the internet, and of social media in particular, to these bodies. Audiences and supporters of heritage causes have grown hugely thanks to Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin and Instagram. These have become mainstream tools in the heritage world, allowing campaigning individuals and bodies to express opinions in a way that people find lively, authentic and compelling. They also open up even the most modest or specialist causes to local, national and international debate in a way that would have seemed inconceivable even a generation ago.
The use of social media and the internet to advance a cause, of course, extends far beyond the world of heritage. There are, for example, more than 29,000 e-petitions on the UK Government website alone. Some sense of the scale of social-media campaigning is apparent through the growing number of emails we all receive to sign up to this or that petition or undertaking. Its very popularity has also ensured this phenomenon a new name: clicktivism.
Where a click in support of a cause empowers the signatory by encouraging them to become a member of a group, to volunteer or back a crowdfunding initiative, then this sort of engagement is a definite plus. It’s much less valuable, however, if commitment stays just mouse-deep. The number of likes, followers, hits, and e-signatures doesn’t necessarily indicate success or—more importantly—quantify value. The uncomfortable truth, moreover, is that digital activism doesn’t replace responsibility or active involvement. For all the popularity of our heritage in the virtual world of the internet, we still need ‘boots on the ground’ if our heritage proper is to be saved. Despite the digital revolution, the heritage movement in one sense remains unchanged: it still depends on passionate commitment as its primary resource.
Octavia Hill (National Trust), William Morris (Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings) and Duncan Sandys (Civic Trust) showed us that it is creativity, courage and, above all, commitment that really sustains our heritage. Their example is still relevant, so next time you sign up to an e-petition, don’t just be a number—be real, too.
‘Next time you sign up to an e-petition, don’t be a number– be real, too