In less than six years, the online petition site Change.org has become a sleek, efficient way of creating a petition and garnering online signatures to support your cause — but it’s also created a new form of lazy social activism that’s not nearly as impressive as it seems.
The company was founded by Ben Rattray. Rattray is one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2012, employs 175 people across 18 countries, according to CNN Money, and has touched the lives of millions more.
Rattray has harnessed not a growing sense of activism from the international community, though, but the power of an anonymous collective that can support just about any cause while sitting behind computer screens. The website boasts more than “62,534,238 people taking action” — becoming social activists in all of five minutes.
While the amount of attention the website receives is undoubtedly impressive, according to Forbes, roughly 15,000 petitions are created monthly by average people who hope their five-minute creation will lead to the next big grassroots movement. Only a few, like Trayvon Martin’s mother’s petition to bring criminal second-degree murder charges against George Zimmerman, received massive support. The question is, though, are all of these people really passionate about change, or are they simply bored and looking to stir up the pot?
While the idea of the Change.org platform is to provide an easily accessible and free place to voice your opinion and promote change, I’m just not sold. The site plays to a generation infatuated with quick returns and easy gratification that diminishes the need to actually leave your house. An online signature means nothing if all you do is sign and forget about the cause you’ve supposedly committed yourself to.
It’s all too easy to get wrapped up in the convenience of Change.org and stay safely seated in your chair, believing you’re an aspiring social activist, all for signing a few petitions.
Perhaps Martin’s petition brought her son’s killer to court, but in the end, it played no part in the ruling that Zimmerman wasn’t in fact guilty. The petition is simple and easy to add your name to, but it’s also incredibly limited and perpetuates a standard of lazy activism that can be logged in and out of at the click of a button.
I’m also not sold on their practice of making money from advertisers who are diametrically opposed to the fundamental, liberal values the site was created on. In his CNN interview with Adam Lashinsky, Rattray describes the site as “a social good business … a business that is dedicated not to maximizing profits, but maximizing the impact we have on the world.” Rattray claims that his company isn’t just concerned about shareholders but also stakeholders, namely the impact the site has on the community, environment and the lives of its employees.
The fact that it’s making profit isn’t the problem; obviously, the company needs a way to pay its employees and keep things running. The problem is that some of its profit comes from corporations and conservative campaigns that don’t fit the progressive image the site touts, according to The Huffington Post. Its willingness to appeal to conservative and Republican customers, while still promising that it’s a socially liberal platform dedicated to positive public change, creates an identity crisis that pits social liberalism against the promise of good profit.
True activism comes from actively living what you believe. The point of activism is being active for a cause you are passionate about. There is power in the anonymous collective, but there’s also something infinitely more rewarding about actually living your values, rather than offhandedly signing an online petition and logging out of your social activism at the end of the day.
“Just reading the headline and signing a petition is not social activism,” said Stephanie Choi, a freshman studying English, “but people can become activists through this site by finding the petition that catches their heart and working to promote that cause on their own.”
Change.org was an impressive idea, and perhaps it’s a good way to initiate the first steps of a larger social movement. But in the end, it’s not a simple online signature but an active and passionate stance that will inspire the most change.
— Mackenzie Brown is a pre-physiology freshman. Follow her @mac_brown01