The big new feature is called Decision Makers (screenshot below). It’s a portal for members of congress, corporate CEOs, and other common targets of Change.org petitions to engage in a dialogue with petition creators. Jake Brewer (formerly of PopVox) is the development lead on the project. In an interview with Issie Lapowski at Inc magazine, Brewer said “With this product, we’re bringing the government out to where the people are, versus bringing the people into where the government is.” and “We totally expect that users won’t always like the responses, because they’ll be press release-y, inauthentic, or might not address the problem. But what I’m most excited about is the ability of users to respond to the response. That’s a conversation.”
I applaud Jake’s enthusiasm, but have my doubts about just how effective this new feature will be. Here are four things to keep an eye on as the new product launches:
1. Total elite buy-in. Elizabeth Warren and Paul Ryan headline the decision makers who have signed up so far. I imagine plenty of members of Congress will follow suit (Popvox has been heavily adopted in congress. Jake Brewer is the right person to be launching this new features). But what about statehouses and corporations? The top 5 petitions featured at Change.org right now are targeted at Yahoo, Chuck E. Cheese, CraigsList, Oklahoma Child Welfare Services, and Mars Incorporated. Unless change.org starts promoting Congressionally-targeted petitions, or immediately starts attracting Fortune 500 CEOs, there’s going to be a disconnect between the new tool and the core product.
2. Actual elite participation. Getting decision makers to sign up is only the first hurdle. When I click on Elizabeth Warren’s or Paul Ryan’s pages, it tells me how many open petitions with more than 10 signatures are addressed to each (74 for Warren, 96 for Ryan) and how many responses each has written (0 for Warren, 0 for Ryan). This tool has only been around for two days so far, so its far too early to declare this a failure. But CEOs and congresspeople lead pretty busy lives. Asking them to engage in deliberative conversations with digital publics (or even asking them to delegate staff time to this purpose) is a heavy lift. Decision Makers could easily become a ghost town.
3. Change.org petitioners’ behavior. I’m presenting a conference paper this Tuesday that compares change.org and petitions.moveon.org as distributed petition platforms.* It’s part of my new book project, on analytics and activism. One of the major differences between the platforms is the character of their users. Last week, about half of MoveOn’s top petitions were focused on the government shutdown or the ACA rollout. That’s to be expected — those were the two issues dominating the national political agenda and media agenda. Only one of Change.org’s top petitions concerned either of these issues: a petition framed around cancer treatment that called for an end to the government shutdown. Change.org has cultivated a public that mostly focuses on non-traditional political issues. Today’s top petition airs frustration over the new version of Yahoo! mail. Last week the top petition asked a high school to revoke a student’s alcohol-related suspension. These are social issues, not traditional political issues. If Change.org petition-creators don’t target individual congresspeople, then a feature initially aimed at cultivating congressional response is going to face a steep climb.
4. Neutrality in a moment of overt partisanship. Change.org prides itself on being a neutral platform. They want to cater to Democrats and Republicans, teachers unions and school reformers. That neutrality is one reason why they are well-situated to launch the Decision Makers feature. Paul Ryan isn’t going to start a dialogue through MoveOn’s website anytime soon. But that neutrality also is at odds with the reality of our political moment. We just had a government shutdown because a small enclave within one half of one branch of government didn’t like the rest of our government. That isn’t gridlock. The Republican party network is moving towards an internal civil war, between the extreme ideologues and the much-more-extreme ideologues. It’s unreasonable to feel “neutral” about these events. What sort of “dialogue” are we supposed to foster with Paul Ryan or Elizabeth Warren, exactly? Depending on which side you’re on, you think one of them is a hero and the other is a villain. There isn’t a lot of room in between.
A few years ago, I wrote a long post and ShoutingLoudly called “In Praise of Petitions (Sort of).” My point was that petitions are an excellent initial “low bar” action. They lay the groundwork for later, “higher bar” actions. We have to view petitions through the lens of a broader campaign. My lingering concern with Change.org is that they are treating the petition as the sole tactic in a campaign. (Citizen starts petition –> citizens sign petition –> media takes note –> decision-maker gives in to the pressure.) That’s like painting in only one color. Even if its a bold color, its still monotonous.
Among Change.org’s proclaimed victories is last week’s petition to “Help me fight cancer and stop the shutdown.” It is true that 150,000 people signed that petition. It is true that the shut down stopped. But I sure hope no one believes that the former caused the latter.
Decision Makers is an innovation at Change.org. But I’m not convinced quite yet that it’s an innovation that really improves our democracy or empowers citizens.
*So, y’know, the rollout of this new feature and accompanying website overhaul was just EPIC timing. Thanks a lot, folks! [/snark]