Earlier this year, internet scholar Clay Shirky said governments systematically overestimate access to information and underestimate the power of citizens’ access to each other.

Shirky ends his piece on a gently ominous tone: “Just because someone isn’t talking about politics in their spare time doesn’t mean they won’t turn out in Tahrir Square when the serious business starts.”

There is a silent tribe in Malta that is neither active in party politics nor historically vociferous in raising its voice on civic and political issues. Yet, increasingly it is this tribe that decides who seizes power when we go to the ballot box.

In a country with a legacy of polarised media systems, pundits are still ignoring the fact that civil society now has access to a two-way, social media back channel of social networks, blogs and online videos that operates alongside the established, one-way, broadcast channels of TV, print and radio.

Citizen media is not necessarily balanced or professional, and is often raw, subjective and amateur. What it lacks in journalism training it makes up in speed and immediacy. It watches other media, institutions and politicians with the same glee that it comments on the Eurovision. And it may well have played a vital role in swinging the result of the divorce referendum vote to the Yes camp, because it is increasingly trusted by civil society as representative and democratic.

News these days spreads virally, like gossip, and often over mobile devices. A feature in The Times is analysed not just on its online collateral, but is rapidly diffused on other mainstream and social media – and linked, tweeted, rehashed, commented and blogged.

This remix web is something we have not had much experience with in Malta. In a society where power brokers believe it is their right to use a newspaper as a personal billboard, it has come as a shock to some to discover the voice of this parallel world.

The tipping point that brought the power of the individual to the fore was when the divorce billboards went up. It felt like a revival of old, power tactics. Online, individuals talked about how Malta was living a lie and how the billboards were treating them like idiots.

The back channel started with some grumbling in blogs and soon became a veritable stream of conversations, one to one, one too many. For every billboard showing Jesus, a woman with a black eye and a cut-out family, much more interesting virtual counterparts were appearing at a faster rate. They were tweeted, shared and discussed online and over dinner.

In the final weeks of the campaign, while some endured the usual TV debates and surveys, another part of Malta rediscovered parody on Facebook and Youtube, and used Photoshop as a tool of democracy.

The signs that social media has become mainstream have been long there, with some 47 per cent of Maltese on Facebook alone and the return of older bloggers to the fray.

And yet, at times it seemed that only members of the Yes campaign were making any attempt to engage in ‘public conversations’ on Facebook as the key issues unravelled. It’s too early to say quite what has changed, and what new lessons are being learnt.

If the online discourse is anything to go by, civil society in Malta is increasingly aware of its rights, and its duty to participate in public debate. This is the online grassroots equivalent of the pjazza and każin, except that the każin is neither blue nor red, and some conversations are loud, and others reflective.

Social media introduces substantial and pervasive changes to communication between organisations, communities, and individuals. This presents an enormous challenge for politicians, institutions, the Church, large business interests and people with social capital who tend to rely on pressing flesh to gain and sustain influence.

A new paradigm of relevancy may be emerging. Power brokers need to understand their job is not to provide us with data or even keep us updated – it is to serve our needs and remain relevant to our lives.

Is the change permanent? Are we ushering a new generation of activism and citizen journalism? Or will it be absorbed in the mainstream and silenced?

As I write, online polls are still sprouting on Facebook on the next civil issue to be addressed.

Perhaps institutions and their power brokers could do with listening a bit more to what people are saying online, instead of continuing to assume that broadcasting and preaching to the converted is the way to go.

Of course, the long hot summer has just kicked in, the hegemony may rapidly paper over the cracks of the past months, and we may go on, as if nothing has happened.

Somehow, I doubt that.