How Change.org Is Mastering the Science of Micro-Activism

The petition website is gaining over two million users a month, but what makes a campaign successful?

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But while these campaigns received worldwide attention, Change.org has championed hundreds of petitions that achieved success without attracting major media attention or more than a few hundred signatures--everything from getting a fired, small-town librarian his job back to pressuring a school in a conservative district to allow the formation of an LGBT alliance.

So what makes a campaign successful? Or, put another way, what did all the campaigns highlighted in this daily staff meeting have in common?

They all focus on what can be called "micro-activism." With thousands of petitions submitted every week, most gain little notice and languish on the site with a handful of signatures. But even a campaign that amasses thousands of signers doesn't guarantee success. After all, the petitions carry no legal weight and so act solely as public awareness tools aimed at pressuring their targets into change. Petitions with broad goals like "end world hunger" and "legalize gay marriage" are common and in some cases even attract many signers, but goals aimed at large institutional bodies like Congress, which is entrenched in partisan divides and prone to gridlock, tend to have little effect.

"I think a lot of times the campaigns I see really take off have to do with the story," says Mark Anthony Dingbaum, a senior campaigner at the company. "If a person's personal story is incredibly compelling, a lot of times signatures will follow." Katy Butler is a Michigan high schooler who came out as a lesbian when she was only 12 and spent much of middle school being harassed by classmates. When she found out that the film Bully, a documentary on the rising epidemic of bullying in American classrooms, was going to be rated R, she started a petition to pressure the Motion Picture Association of America to change the rating so more kids and classrooms could view it. But rather than beginning her missive by addressing the MPAA, Butler told her own story:

When I was in 7th grade, a few guys came up behind me while putting my books in my locker. They called me names and asked me why I even bothered to show my face at school because no one liked me. I ignored them because I was scared of what else they might say and who else they might tell if I stood up to them. When I went to shut my locker, they pushed me against the wall. Then they slammed my locker shut on my hand, breaking my fourth finger. I held back tears while I watched them run away laughing. I didn't know what to do so I stood there, alone and afraid.

The petition spread quickly, generating over 500,000 signatures, including those of celebrities and congressmen, and received widespread news coverage. Eventually, the MPAA changed the movie's rating to PG 13. "You have people who really connected with her story, not because it's like her campaign was unique or that her story was unique," says Dingbaum, "but it's symptomatic of a larger issue, a national issue that she was able to tap into in a very local and personal way."

Often, micro changes have macro effects, in that a successful campaign can create a chain reaction in which people who face similar situations are inspired to take action. "If we've seen one homeowner start a petition to stop a foreclosure on their home to Citibank and it worked, there's another homeowner out there that receives a signal that it's winnable," says Tim Newman, another senior campaigner. This is why Change.org puts so much weight on keeping a petition's signers updated on its progress--often it's after the company sends out a victory E-mail announcing a petition's success that several similar ones pop up on the site.

A good example is a campaign launched by Californian Sean Chapin asking the San Francisco Giants baseball team to produce a video for the It Gets Better campaign aimed at supporting young homosexuals and other bullied teens. Shortly after it gained attention, new Change.org petitions spread across the U.S., with sports fans calling for their local teams to follow suit. In another example, Target employee Anthony Hardwick of Utah calledfor his company to close its stores on Thanksgiving Day so that workers wouldn't have to take off time from their families to prepare for the mad rush of Black Friday. Soon, employees at other retailers produced their own petitions, and though none was successful, the effort brought attention to the workers' rights issues that often get overlooked during Black Friday news coverage.