How Damning is the Change at Change.org?
Earlier this week, my colleague Lindsay Beyerstein wrote about the changing course of the online petition site Change.org. On Monday, the Huffington Post's Ryan Grimm broke the story that the site was planning to change its advertising policy and stop vetting the partners it worked with—without telling users. That the site's social action platform will now be open to corporations and right-wing groups led Jeff Bryant to lament that the group has decided to “side with Goliaths” over the Davids that it has traditionally empowered. But has Change.org really "sold out the progressive movement?"
In a retort on the Huffington Post yesterday, founder Ben Rattray claims that the shift is the logical extension of the site's philosophy, which emphasizes giving people tools rather than espousing any particular political ideology:
Many inspiring organizations have a stated set of policy objectives, and pursue those with incredible passion and commitment. Change.org's strategy is simply different: we aim to empower people everywhere to create the change they want to see. And to do that, we can't be advocates with a policy agenda ourselves.
I actually agree with this—although not the part where Rattray claims that the change wasn't ever a secret, even though it's been reported that the employee who leaked the documents has now been fired—in the sense that the site's core mission doesn't strike me as having ever been especially progressive.
First, a confession: My current personal antipathy toward Change.org stems largely from a petty annoyance with the media persona of Rattray himself. In a dating profile in the New York Times' June feature on “high-worth, high-tech bachelors” we learn that the comely crusader started out in investment banking before he “decided to make a difference instead of making a fortune.” According to important works of investigative journalism, Rattray subsequently became the subject of many fawning women, including the one who wrote this cringeworthy tweet concerning his existence “at the beautiful intersection of stubble and activism.” If you'd like to learn more about how this young, white man is very handsome, very good with money, but nonetheless using his powers to overcome caste discrimination in India one online signature at a time, you can do so here, here or here.
Griping aside, let's be clear about what Change.org has been for some time: a for-profit site that makes money by mining your e-mail address and selling it to its partners. If you are like me, this is how you ended up on the mailing list of "education reformer" Michelle Rhee, who reportedly gleaned two million e-mail addresses of Change.org users before the site ended its controversial partnership with her group.
Change.org is a “Class B” corporation, a relatively new status granted to companies that make a profit but also provide a social benefit. There's nothing especially egregious about this—the law mostly protects "benefit corporations" from certain kinds of shareholder lawsuits—but a June Wall Street Journal article notes that other sites that have a similar business model reveal this more openly by using a dot-com web address. The piece quotes Clay Johnson, social media fundraiser and author of The Information Diet, on the problem with Change.org's obfuscation:
I have huge problems with Change.org because they are a lead-generation business disguised as a social-change organization for whoever is willing to pay them for the email addresses. It's dangerous to monetize 'change' because there's an economic incentive to sensationalize.
Key among such sensationalization is the stories the site tells about its victories. The organization does have a skilled team of organizers who step in when a petition is doing well. (Netroots Nation's Raven Brooks complains that this is the case because the company poaches talent from other progressive groups, and charges that although's he's assembled a crack team, Rattray has always been out first and foremost to replicate the success of sites like Living Social). But to get off the ground in the first place, most campaigns need to be backed by strong movements—and that fact is what has always gotten short shrift in the site's claims about change.
When 14 year-old Julia Bluhm's Change.org petition resulted in a promise from Seventeen magazine to ban photo retouching of its models this July, In These Times staff writer Sady Doyle noted that the focus on Bluhm, to the exclusion of the feminist group she and many other girls were working with, sent the wrong message to other young activists looking to make change:
The ... tendency to sentimentalize and simplify activism—and, particularly, its tendency to pick out lone heroes or heroines, normal people granted exceptional powers to fight evil—is an alarming one. A responsible account of social change should not, generally speaking, have the same plot as the first Spider-Man movie. And not only because this sort of thinking is trite, or lazy: Because it misrepresents the basic principles by which activism works.
It's not that progressives shouldn't believe in the “power of individuals to make change” that Change.org's principled non-partisanship lauds--but they should be more concerned with the power of collective action, and with restoring confidence in this power in the face of an alienating and individualizing political culture. But unlike petition sites that associate openly with those pesky ideological goals, and the organizing power that comes with them, Change.org boasts with little qualification that its petitions themselves are the driving force behind expanded healthcare for military families and gender justice organizing in South Africa. Let's take that theory of change with a grain of salt.