By offering popular services for free, such as Craigslist and YouTube, Change.org and SignOn.org have discovered how to harness the power of abundance in online politics. In broadcast media, because airtime or print space is scarce and expensive, political messages must be crafted and delivered in sound bites. But on the Internet, the costs of communication are low. Thus, instead of relying on political professionals trying to predict which issues may pack a punch, these websites open the gates to everyone. Only 2 or 3 percent of the petitions catch on, but a process of natural selection allows the stronger ones to spread.
Internet-driven organizations are better suited to these campaigns because they can test the preferences of their members and then focus on “whatever issue is getting the attention of the public right now,” said David Karpf, who teaches media studies at Rutgers University and just authored The MoveOn Effect. Older advocacy groups that attract members via direct mail and rely on professional staff to chart their course are at a disadvantage. While they lumber along, planning strategy and budgets according to quarterly and yearly targets, Internet-powered activists can respond quickly to whichever headlines are drawing public attention—and divert support from the older groups.
Is there a downside to the democratization of political organizing? Change.org’s Wikler professes no fear of “petition fatigue”—at least, he says, “not the way I worry about voter fatigue.… There’s still a lot of injustice out there that people haven’t gotten together to address.” On the national stage, this has fostered a sort of petition inflation: Congress won’t blink at 100,000 signatures on a petition, but it will notice 1 million. Most of these petitions, however, have state, local, and corporate targets that tend to react with more sensitivity to broadsides from an aroused citizenry.
Still, the issues that fare best using this emerging tool for bringing democracy to bear are those that tug on the emotions and produce relatively simple victories. Persuading the Agriculture Department to back down on “pink slime” is surely easier than, say, ending long-standing subsidies for energy-intensive farming. Success also depends on the power of the interests under attack.
By encouraging activism around many issues, Wikler argues, Change.org may help advocates pursue longer-term battles by tapping a broader constituency. But Karpf is less sanguine. “What is in danger of being lost is institutional memory,” which comes from tracking issues over long periods, he pointed out. Besides, he added, “really hard policy changes take a lot of time and require building up a lot of power. And that requires a lot of resources.”
Right now, those resources are shifting from an older generation of advocacy organizations and into the coffers of fledgling, Web-savvy players striving to become the new power brokers in a digital age.
The author is cofounder of Personal Democracy Media and is editorial director of its news site, techpresident.com, which covers the effects of technology on politics, government, and civic life.