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In Defense of Change at Change.org

BY Micah L. Sifry | Thursday, October 25 2012

Photo Felix Burton/Wikimedia Commons

Ever since the news broke on the Huffington Post and the Campaign for America's Future (CAF) blog that Change.org, the fast-growing online petition and campaign site, was altering its operating model to become a more open platform, I've been amazed and dismayed by the reaction of many self-styled progressives. HuffPo's Ryan Grim, who usually aims his guns at rightwing billionaires, banksters and sleazy lobbyists, set the tone with his incendiary claim on Monday that Change was now going to "work with corporate, anti-abortion, GOP campaigns." Jeff Bryant of CAF said that Change, "enabler of Davids, decided to side with Goliaths instead." Raven Brooks of Netroots Nation has been on a tear: "Change.org sells out the progressive movement" was how he titled his post on DailyKos. Aaron Krager accused it of embracing right-wing front groups. Suddenly, it's really popular on the online left to bash Change for somehow betraying its roots, as Sarah Lai Stirland reported here yesterday.

Frankly, I think these folks have all gone a little overboard. And I'm trying to be polite. None of these parade of horribles has actually happened, and there's little chance that they will. On a daily basis, Change.org continues to help ordinary people do things like beat back greedy corporations, confront brutality, and defeat discrimination, while enabling large organizations with broadly similar goals pay for the privilege of reaching lots of those ordinary people too. But the reaction of these self-styled progressives to Change's changes is important. It suggests that the word progressive itself may no longer have much useful meaning, or that in the new context of networked hyper-democracy, it has to be redefined.

Here's what has happened with Change.org in the past year and a half. Ever since it turned itself into a platform for free e-petitions, where anyone could start a cause and then receive free, expert assistance from the company's experienced organizing staff if their campaign started to gain traction, Change has grown explosively. As I reported last spring, it went from gaining a few hundred thousand new users a month to as many as two million per month, fighting and winning dozens of campaigns from big ones, like the Bank of America fee protest, to all sorts of small but meaningful actions. Its staff expanded to more than 150, and it started establishing offices in dozens of countries around the world to service its more than 23 million current users. All of this growth was fueled by the money it made selling established organizations the ability to, in effect, buy fresh email addresses by sponsoring petitions alongside successful grassroots campaigns.

This is a big, disruptive, deal. In essence, 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 for change. 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. The downside of this model, if there is one, is that as established organizations start to lose their monopoly on issue work thanks to platforms like Change, there may also be a loss of institutional memory and expertise. Small causes may win more ground; big ones that require taking on Congress or an international body may lose. But the cat is out of the bag; now that Change has discovered and started to perfect this approach, it can't be undone. The only relevant question is how much this will alter social change organizing, and which kinds of organizations will thrive (or shrivel) in this new context.

Rapid growth has also presented a distinct challenge to Change's own business model, one that it was bound to face sooner or later as its usefulness made it more and more attractive to users . During this whole period of growth, Change's client policy said that it would "accept sponsored campaigns from organizations fighting for the public good and the common values we hold dear – fairness, equality, and justice." It included this proviso: "We do not accept sponsored campaigns from organizations that consistently violate these values, support discriminatory policies, or seek private corporate benefit that undermines the common good." But over the summer, Change discovered that this stance was untenable.

Open vs Closed or Left vs Right?
What brought matters to a head was the uproar over a sponsored petition campaign on Change by Stand With Children, an education reform lobbying organization that advocates for more teacher evaluation by student test scores, the elimination of the "last in, first out" seniority system and other measures that many progressives believe are "anti-union." As Dave Karpf wrote here, this presented Change with an unpleasant and perhaps unresolvable dilemma: "They want to be open, they want to promote their own values, and they want to continue growing." From what I understand from company insiders, the whole experience stalled the staff in their tracks for several weeks this summer as everyone debated the merits of the case and the broader implications for the company.

After extensive internal discussions, Change's founder and CEO Ben Rattray and his team decided that being open should be their paramount value, rather than trying to decide whether each and every advertiser they take is a true-blue progressive. Says company spokesman Benjamin Joffe-Walt:

Our strategy is to create a global empowerment platform that is open to anyone, anywhere and that helps democratize access to power for hundreds of millions more people. We want to help build a world where no one is powerless and making change is a part of everyday life. And we think we can do that best through empowering people everywhere to make the change they want to see. We think the net positive impact on the world will be greater if we're an open platform than if we’re an agenda-driven organization, even if that openness means that some people many of us personally disagree with are able to launch campaigns on our site.

As part of this shift, Change has just rolled out new advertising guidelines that no longer talk about "fairness, equality and justice" and instead describes the company's goal as "empowering people everywhere to create the change they want to see." The guidelines say that Change will not accept ads from hate groups, or ads that promote hate, violence or discrimination, and that it reserves the right to refuse advertising "based on technical limitations, resource constraints, or protection of the Company and our users."

This makes sense for a company that is growing and trying to be a big platform for change. As a leaked internal planning document points out, "closed guidelines [for potential advertisers] … simply don't scale." It would take too much time to research every individual advertiser, and doing so would also imply that the company endorses the advertisers whose causes they do accept. "Ultimately, we need to get out of the business of making subjective judgments about advertisers or having public battles about the ads on the site, which distract our team from the important work we're doing," the document argues.

Critics like Ryan Grim and Raven Brooks have pounced on this, claiming that it means that Change is selling out and will soon be rolling in millions from all sorts of corporate front groups. That could happen, but only if the company's leadership decides that it wants to pursue those advertisers. Craig Newmark could turn Craigslist, which is also a business built on being an open platform, into an advertiser-driven paradise for Fortune 500 companies, but he hasn't. The Mozilla Corporation, which is a business built on an open platform (the Firefox browser), could decide to start favoring paying advertisers as a way to bring in more income, but it hasn't. And yet, Change's critics are sure that its new open platform policy means that the company will soon be playing footsie with the Koch Brothers and their ilk.

What Change's leadership is saying is that they think most "bad" organizations won't bother to advertise on Change, because their campaigns won't do well with their users, and that they will closely monitor the results of this shift. "Our commitment to our users is that we will aim to only suggest sponsored campaigns they might be interested in and avoid suggesting sponsored campaigns that might offend them," the planning document says. "The campaigns team has no connection with the advertisements on our site," says Joffe-Walt, "nor do advertisers have any say over the work of our campaigns team. Our email program, media support, and so forth are all on the campaign side," he adds, likening the relationship to the separation between editorial and advertisements in a newspaper. Campaigners may very well help boost petitions that target Change's advertisers.

It's worth noting, I think, that since all this news broke, veteran progressive campaigners who now work for Change, like Paul Hilder, who came from Avaaz, and Michael Whitney, who came from Firedoglake.com, the SEIU and Generation Dean, and Johnny Chatterton, who came from the UK's 38 Degrees group have tweeted publicly about how proud they are to be working there.

Progressives Against Change?
The tempest around Change's changes is exposing a deeper problem that most of the company's critics are avoiding: there is no hard and fast formula for deciding if a particular cause is either all good or all bad. Many are in between. For example, Shayna Englin of Fission Strategy shared these comments with me on the current controversy:

Case in point: I'm a hard core, dyed in the wool progressive with an expertise in not just politics but policy, too, and a kid in middle school. I'm also a believer in a strong Labor movement. I'm an SEIU member, through the adjunct professors union at GW.  That said, I think there are policies that are bad for students AND teachers that are protected vigorously by teacher's unions. I'd argue that organizations with a focus on closing the yawning and growing achievement gap in our public schools that take on those policies that protect unions over kids or individual teachers are progressives, too.

Englin's firm, Fission Strategy, is one of the top progressive online strategy shops in the country. Is Raven Brooks, who recently called for a boycott of NationBuilder for making its platform open to Republicans, now going to call for a boycott of her services? Leif Utne, the VP of DrupalSquad, and a board member of TheUpTake.org, a progressive online news organization, points out that there is a lot of legitimate debate about a variety of positions taken by "progressive" organizations. He comments, "AFL-CIO is pro-Keystone XL, CWA and AFTRA lobbied for SOPA/PIPA, the Teamsters have favored drilling in ANWR and opposed CAFE standards. With all due respect to my union brothers and sisters, those are some pretty f--ed up, un-progressive positions. But whose definition of progressive do you use, especially on the global scale Change.org is attempting to reach?"

And director Lee Hirsch, whose anti-bullying film got a huge boost from a Change.org petition that pressed the MPAA to give it a PG rating so more kids could see it, says, "I saw firsthand the incredible work that Change employees deliver on daily basis. It goes without saying that if we are to assess impact, they are fierce and affective and are true game-changers, whether taking on the boy scouts, monolithic corporations or in my case - the MPAA.  Breaking out of the progressive box - can be a powerful tool for impact."

The list goes on. And networked democracy is just making these lines blurrier. Is it progressive to try to shut down a business like BackPages.com that profits from sex ads that objectify and exploit women? Or is it progressive to defend BackPages.com's First Amendment rights? Which is more regressive, union-busting or internet-busting?

By backing out of adjudicating these questions, Change is actually making a profoundly progressive choice, only more in the "peer progressive" vein described by Steven Johnson in his new book, Future, Perfect. That is, Change is choosing to let thousands of peer-to-peer networks bloom rather than pick in advance which are the worthiest of support, and to let its users have a much larger say in influencing that decision.

All that said, could Change have handled this change better? Sure. It sent confusing signals about its mission, and it probably should be more direct in telling its users about this shift--especially now that others are framing the change in such polarized ways. It remains to be seen if Change can keep a strong firewall between its paying clients, their sponsored petitions (which are now to be labeled more clearly as ads, I'm told), and their campaigns arm. But the company's need to keep its user base engaged should be a check on the tendency for those lines to blur. And plenty of people will be watching and expecting them to live up to their own stated, and long-implied promise, which is, to change the world for the better.

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