Online petitions are putting millions in the hands of a few organizations, limiting the web’s potential as a tool for global change.
The ubiquitous web petition. Chances are, you've recently clicked one. Maybe it was from your favorite nonprofit's email list or Facebook page, allowing you to take "action" in one second. Or perhaps you found it on the web's major petition site, Change.org. To click may seem like an innocent act, harmless and, perhaps, if more people sign, influential. But did you know that behind each click or "like" is a multimillion-dollar industry thriving on the commodification and monetization of those clicks? And despite the grand rhetoric to the contrary, clicktivism's social impact is, thus far, uncertain.
Make no mistake, online petitions are a business too. In fact, the financial model of Change.org, which reportedly has revenue in the millions, mimics those of Silicon Valley startups. Offer something for free, then sell preferential access. "Sponsored" petitions are highlighted on the site, and what Change.org offers clients is its audience: some 75 million names, who are nudged, through emails, social media, and other methods, to sign those petitions.
This profit model has allowed Change.org to grow rapidly and expand into new markets globally. There are other petition sites—the fellow profit-oriented Care2, nonprofits tools from Avaaz, 38 Degrees and Getup, and government-run ones like the White House's We the People. All are dwarfed by Change.org in size as it turns into a behemoth, dominating petitions in the same way Google dominates search.
To their credit, petitions have achieved victories. Remember pink sludge, the chemical the FDA was allowing into school meat? Or the campaign to remove brominated vegetable oil, a flame retardant, from Gatorade? Both petitions were started by regular people, went viral, and resulted in real change.
But therein also lies the problem: As research shows, you're more likely to click on something short, simple, and easy to understand. Simple petitions thrive on sites like Change.org. This is, in fact, a strategy; much like how advertisers use simple messages to get you to purchase products, petition sites use similar messages (flame retardant in my Gatorade!) to entice you to click.
That is why petitions often fail to challenge the status quo, and by commodifying victories, Change.org and similar sites limit the web's potential to bring real, global change. Both the aforementioned petitions were bumper sticker-simple issues with concrete targets who could be swayed by public pressure. They fit in a Tweet, or a Facebook post, but do they really change the world? I don't need to tell you the world is facing huge challenges at the moment: Syria, Gaza, climate change, Tibet. Then go to Change.org. You won't find many of these issues on there.
In an interview, a Change.org spokesperson explained how the site focuses on "little big issues," and enables community leaders and nonprofits to further engage users on larger issues.
Change, Care2, and petitions built by third-party developers Blue State Digital, Convio, and similar tech firms do allow petition creators to communicate with signers and organize events and fundraising. But little more. The data (how you click, open messages, the action you take, what engages you, and what you share) and technology (proprietary petition and email blast software) remain in the hands of a handful of private companies and large NGOs.
This reflects how today's internet, despite its potential as a Democratizing Tool, is controlled by the few. Look at mobile—most apps have to go through Apple and Google's not-always transparent approval process to be placed on their app stores and become visible to millions of smartphone users. The featured petitions on Change.org, currently a private "B" corporation, (a voluntary, non-binding certification which means they met the nonprofit B Lab's standards for social and environmental performance) are similarly controlled not by its millions of users but its CEO and founder Ben Rattray, and, according to a spokesperson, a global "Leadership Team."
In the end, Change.org staff choose which petitions get featured—often, the ones that get clicks. We're left to trust that their leadership, staff, and CEO will use the organization's millions in revenue to, as a spokesperson said "empower users [beyond petitions], such as being able to contribute resources or money to a project, being able to contribute 'time' potentially through things like volunteering, and contribute their civic activity, such as voting."
The company would not release its financial reports, so there's no way of knowing how many (or how much) clients pay for sponsored petitions. It also would not release any specific data on how the company is investing in these forms of social impact, nor how much goes to management salaries, though Rattray has an estimated wealth of $2 million.
The thing is, technology can be open and empowering. There's a better approach. In Indonesia, where I currently work, I know a local NGO that has developed open-source, web-based community tools for rural village leaders to monitor migrant workers from their villages, creating a vast database of open information that can help reduce instances of human trafficking and exploitation.
Both are complex problems that are difficult to explain in emails or in a single petition. No clicks involved. It was not easy; staff have to train each village leader individually, and then regularly return to ensure that they are using the tool properly. But the potential impact is huge. Moreover, the organization makes all its code freely available for anyone in the world to replicate and adapt for their needs.
In fact, not too long ago, Change.org offered users numerous tools to self-organize, not dissimilar from the Indonesian NGO. But uptake was slow, except for petitions. So they abandoned those tools and just focused on clicks. If you click one petition, you'll get asked to click another. Then another. Maybe one will ask you to fight against a coal plant in your hometown. Maybe it'll win. Meanwhile, thousands of acres of Indonesian forests will have been burned, cleared for coal mines, coal that is then exported to China, where five new, massive coal plants have opened in the time it took you to win your campaign. The impact, globally, is nil.
Still, a victory is a victory, right? Yes, but as I see it, the bigger problem is that because of the emphasis on petitions, the money is flowing in the wrong direction. My Indonesian friends can develop their complex digital tool with a budget in the thousands, but are limited to a few hundred villages in a country with 10,000 islands.
At last estimate, Change.org's traffic was growing in leaps and bounds, and it was bringing in millions of dollars with its centrally controlled petition tool that counts hundreds of "victories." Imagine if that money went to community organizations in developing countries to build useful, open-source tools to empower local change. That is the potential of the internet, the web we haven't yet built.