December 9, 2013
Posted by David Karpf
This weekend, Change.org hit a big milestone: 50 million people worldwide have now taken action on their site*.
For the past month, I’ve been visiting the homepages of Change.org and SignOn.org every day. I record the top 10 petitions promoted by each site. I’ll be doing this for another five months to create a dataset that I can use to draw some firm comparisons. Despite the milestone, I have to admit that the more time I spend studying Change.org, the more ambivalent I feel about the company.
The thing that bugs me about the top Change.org petitions is what we might call the lack of an “importance-meter.”
The #1 petition at Change.org today is titled “Justice for Andra Grace — Tougher Animal Abuse Laws Are Necessary!” The petition tells the heart-rending story of a South Carolina man who tried to kill a dog by dragging it behind his pickup truck. The maximum penalty for his crime in South Carolina is only $1,100 and/or 30 days in jail. The author concludes by calling for tougher animal abuse laws.
Now, that can be a worthy cause. People love their pets, and if pet-lovers get organized through Change.org and start taking on the government, I think that’s a Good Thing. But this petition isn’t addressed to the South Carolina legislature. It’s addressed to “animal lovers of the world.” Signing this petition is an act of social solidarity, not an act of political pressure.
By comparison, SignOn/MoveOn’s #1 petition today is titled “Breaking News: House Republicans to Torpedo President Obama’s Iran Agreement.” It tells the story of congressional maneuvering by Eric Cantor’s office that could undermine tense international diplomatic negotiations with Iran. The author explains the interim deal with Iran, and the ways that Cantor’s bill could destroy our negotiating ability. The petition is directed to members of the House of Representatives.
Let’s set aside for a moment whether one of these issues is innately more important than the other. The real problem is in how each is constructed.
Three years ago, I wrote a long ShoutingLoudly post titled “In Praise of Petitions (Sort of).” The TL;DR version is that the best high-volume tactics like petitions (online or off) have layers to them. An online petition act as a springboard for offline tactics like solidarity rallies, marches, and citizen lobbying. The easy first step of signing your name leads into a “ladder of engagement” the promotes more intense participation.
The Andra Grace petition is directionless. The Iran petition is focused. The Andra Grace petition calls on no one in particular to promote tougher animal abuse laws. The Iran petition calls on members of Congress to oppose a specific bill, currently under debate.
But the Andra Grace petition has a clickable image and a heart-rending story. The Iran petition has no image and six footnotes.
Let me be clear: we should not expect every petition on either site to be professionally produced. One of the benefits of distributed petition platforms is that anyone can launch these campaigns. I don’t mean to insult the author for being new to online campaigning. But the top of the homepage is valuable digital real estate and algorithms can automate value-judgments. The campaigns that you promote and highlight say something about your identity as an organization.
Promoting the Andra Grace petition (or, two weeks ago, the petition to Family Guy creator Seth McFarlane to bring back the cartoon dog he’d killed off) represents an algorithmic value-judgment. It says that the most clickable campaigns — the ones that will bring in the widest audiences — are the best campaigns. And I doubt that anyone at Change.org entirely believes that.
50 million people is a hell of a milestone. No other social change organization comes close to that reach. I wonder, though, whether they are optimizing for the right things.
*(via PD+ First Post, which ShoutingLoudly readers should really subscribe to.)
**Note: those are all self-hyperlinks. I maybe write too much about Change.org.