While the political world is fixated on the presidential campaign, an important fight has been brewing between progressive activists and online organizers. Those two groups are not mutually exclusive, of course, so this debate upends some traditional ideological boundaries.
It started last week, when The Huffington Post reported on change at Change.org. Now, you don’t need to know the name Change.org, as a website, in order to care about this fight. In fact, when Change.org succeeds, you should hardly hear about it all.
That’s because Change.org is about other people. It provides a platform to empower citizens with free organizing and petition drives, using the hook of viral campaigns to amplify the voices of unknown activists. The model can work really well. If you follow progressive politics, you probably know about some of the people who have used the site for unlikely breakthroughs.
There was Molly Katchpole, a 22-year-old woman working two part-time jobs who launched a petition against ATM fees last year, which sparked a national network of outrage and led Bank of America to reverse its policies. Or Jenny Holcomb, a Brown university freshman who protested the overzealous prosecution of an autistic 15-year-old who hit her teacher, sparking national concern over the felony charges, which were later dropped. Or three high school students who posted a petition sharing their “shock” that a woman journalist had not been selected to moderate a presidential debate in twenty years. (Pictured at right.) Candy Crowley ended that record this month, but only after the male-dominated debate commission faced bad press and unusual scrutiny when the petition took off.
Each of those efforts have a few key elements in common. The petitions were started by young people whose idealism—and even potential naïveté—was a plus. These young people appealed for support as amateur citizen organizers, not members of the professional political class. Their calls to action were clear and essentially pure, in contrast to larger organizations, which balance activism with competing interests like fundraising and “list-building.” And, crucial for any unfunded political organizing, the proposed outcomes were precise and final—Cancel the fees, Drop the charges, Pick a woman. None of these campaigns suffered, in other words, from the pressure on permanent organizations to perpetuate their existence by maintaining the problems they are supposed to solve. (Robert Michels, the famous critic of elite political behavior, would probably approve.)
Those features were facilitated by Change.org’s user-friendly model, which makes it a cinch to create or join a web petition. It’s what network theorist Clay Shirky calls “ridiculously easy group formation”—the conversations and links that form when the barriers to group interaction are lowered.
Those barriers don’t matter as much for well-funded or especially salient causes, such as electing a president, or protecting Medicare for seniors. Many losing battles, however, are handicapped by the high barrier to entry for political organizing. By filling that void, Change.org has stoked activism on issues that institutional groups have either neglected or failed to address effectively. (No national organization is devoted to ATM fee increases, for example, while the groups that work on women’s representation in media never drew the same public interest as the high school students who took on the debate commission.) It’s no surprise that many of the issues in that void are reformist or liberal, and Change.org has generally refused to work with conservative groups.
Which brings us back to the fight. Change.org recently decided to change course and accept “corporate advertising, Republican Party solicitations, astroturf campaigns” and conservative political sponsorships, according to The Huffington Post’s account of internal company documents. The article casts the move as a betrayal of the company’s founding mission, a failure to transparently engage its users, and a capitulation to the conservative, corporatist pressure on “for-profit companies founded on progressive values” to make a “strategic break with the progressive movement.” (Ben Rattray, Change.org’s founder, released a detailed rebuttal.)
Some liberals have criticized the move, including a fairly strong objection from the Campaign for America’s Future, a leading progressive organization which first obtained Change.org’s internal documents about the policy. Raven Brooks, a respected activist who directs the annual Netroots Nation conference, responded to the report by accusing Change.org of “selling out the progressive movement.” Another leading techno-liberal disagrees.
At TechPresident, Micah Sifry not only defends Change.org’s ability to do good things while allowing a wider range of political views on the site—he argues that the more open, non-ideological model is an improvement.
“Change.org has figured out how to take advantage of the abundant nature of online connectivity to enable millions of people to win their own fights,” Sifry argues, “but this new model may also be threatening to lots of established organizations, who prefer to decide for their ‘members’ what campaigns to work on, and in effect get paid for representing their members’ passions” (emphasis added).
Under this view, the real rift is not about left and right. It’s about traditional top-down leadership versus bottom-up organizing; it’s about a tension between the closed political establishment (across the spectrum) and a more open organizing model. That’s not just rhetoric. Liberal insiders are fighting over Change.org precisely because it has the crowd-power to disrupt a lot of liberal advocacy.
As a hub for so many grassroots projects, Change.org draws up to 2 million users a month, which is more growth than most political organizations can generate in a year. Sifry says those numbers explain why groups pay Change.org to sponsor campaigns and effectively “buy fresh e-mail addresses” through sponsored petitions. (Change.org is structured as a for-profit Benefit Corporation, which frees it from the legal obligation on conventional companies to maximize profits.) The strong participation also explains why the company didn’t want to select who can use its services on a case-by-case basis.
In the end, the intramural fissures over the policy do not reflect fundamentally divergent goals so much as different lenses for how to look at, yes, change.
If you apply a traditional coalition paradigm, the story is that Change.org began by teaming up with a loose coalition of liberal groups, found success, and then left them behind as it grew into a something that looks more like a self-sustaining global technology company than a progressive meetup. That is the story of betrayal and “selling out.”
But you can also apply an open-source paradigm, where the value of the system is defined by who it empowers and how it works, rather than any pre-set ideological objectives. Think of Wikipedia, or the bottom-up organizing models of Saul Alinsky and Marshall Ganz. Under this view, Change.org is simply expanding its civic services, and the more open, the better. While the open source view has loyal adherents, it is not a conventional ideology. It is a belief in a system.
Navigating a battle between partisan, progressive organizing and decentralized petition drives is, at bottom, like trying to choose between the Democratic Party and democracy. The ideas are on different planes. If you believe in democracy, you accept, by definition, the existence and triumph of opposing ideas. The people who believe deeply in the Internet’s force as a commons operate on that kind of premise. And the pivotal, early policy decisions that created a fairly open Internet — making it mostly free and anonymous, limiting government control, and providing legal protections to separate the content of users from the agnostic role of platforms — have worked quite well. That doesn’t mean liberals are wrong to lament that a powerful platform is branching out beyond liberal content. But there is certainly nothing illiberal about inviting more people into the process.