10:01pm

Thu March 15, 2012
Digital Life

Petitions Are Going Viral, Sometimes To Great Success

Petitions have been a common form of protest throughout modern history, at times bringing attention to causes through little more than handwritten letters and word of mouth.

But like a lot of other things, petitions are going viral. And one website in particular has contributed to the phenomenon.

Change.org offers tools to let individuals start their own online campaigns, a way to bring instant awareness to issues that range from the environment to human rights.

Just this week, the group was credited with getting the high-profile virtual signatures of Ellen DeGeneres and New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees on a petition to lower the R rating on an anti-bullying movie as a way to give more teens access to the film.

Change.org has a simple three-question, fill-in-the-blank form to let anyone start an online petition: Who do you want to petition? What do you want them to do? Why is this important?

Anyone on the site can read a petition, and — if they choose to — offer their electronic signature of support.

"I think it's part of an ecosystem," said Alan Webber, an industry analyst from the Altimeter Group who has been monitoring Change.org for the past few years. "You know, people are going to share petitions, but they're going to share those petitions via Facebook or via Twitter."

Ben Rattray, 31, founder and CEO of Change.org, said he came up with the idea while in college.

"When I was at Stanford, there was this combined interest both in entrepreneurship and in political-social change, and it was the one way I could identify combining the two and mobilizing people to advance the causes they care about," said Rattray.

Now, large organizations like the Sierra Club and Oxfam International pay to have their petitions promoted on the site, while individuals can post petitions for free.

More than 10 million people are using the site, and more than 15,000 new campaigns are launched every month, Rattray said.

One of Change.org's most famous online petitions targeted Bank of America's plan to charge a $5 monthly debit card fee. A 22-year-old woman filed a petition late last year, and within a month, 300,000 people had electronically signed the petition against the charges. The bank decided to drop its proposed new fee.

More recently, a class of fourth-graders petitioned Universal Studios to strengthen the environmental message in the Dr. Seuss story-turned-film, The Lorax.

More than 50,000 people signed the petition. "Universal Studios changed The Lorax webpage almost exactly as my class requested!" wrote teacher Ted Wells on Change.org.

Last fall, Emily Holcomb, a 15-year-old nonverbal autistic girl from Hamilton, Ala., was charged with a felony assault after she slapped her teacher.

"The sheriff's department was standing there, served me papers and wanted to serve Emily papers until I told them that, you know, she was a child with autism that was nonverbal with a mental capacity of about a 2- to 3-year-old," said Emily's mother, Jenny Holcomb.

When Holcomb's friend found out about the incident, she posted it on Facebook.

"And from Facebook it spread," said Holcomb. "That's when Lydia Brown contacted me and asked me, you know, if she could do a petition to have charges and stuff dropped."

Brown, 18, a student at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., blogs about her own autism but had never written a petition.

At first, Brown said, "I was kind of like, I don't know how I should do this. I don't know if there's a template anywhere."

Then, some of Brown's friends suggested she use Change.org.

"I wrote this petition that came across in this very legalese, very formal kind of, 'We affirm that. We demand that,' kind of format," she said.

Later, she realized most petitions on the site are not written so formally. But it worked. Within days, around 1,200 people signed it online, and the felony assault charges against Emily Holcomb were dropped.

"I think eventually we would have got what we wanted" and had the charges dropped, said Holcomb's mother, Jenny. "But I don't think it would have been as soon" without the online petition.

Brown said she has since written two more petitions on Change.org related to autism.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Petitions have been a common form of protest throughout history, but gone are the days of having to use handwritten letters to bring attention to a cause. Now, petitions are online. One company, called Change.org, has contributed to the phenomenon. NPR's Teresa Tomassoni reports how the company's website allows people to start change in their communities with a few clicks of a mouse.

TERESA TOMASSONI, BYLINE: When Jenny Holcomb's 15-year-old daughter Emily was charged with felony assault in Hamilton, Alabama for slapping a teacher, she was shocked.

JENNY HOLCOMB: The sheriff's department was standing there, served me papers and wanted to serve Emily papers until I told them that, you know, she was a child with autism that was nonverbal.

TOMASSONI: Afterwards, Holcomb says a friend wrote about the incident on Facebook.

HOLCOMB: And from Facebook it spreaded. And that's when Lydia Brown contacted me and asked me, you know, if she could do a petition to have the charges and stuff dropped on Emily.

TOMASSONI: The woman who wrote the petition, Lydia Brown, is autistic herself. She's been an advocate for people with the disorder since high school. But the 18-year-old Georgetown University student had never written a petition before.

LYDIA BROWN: So I was just kind of like, I don't know how I should do this. I don't know if there's a template anywhere.

TOMASSONI: Some friends suggested she use Change.org., a website which lets people write petitions and collect electronic signatures online to protest or support causes that interest them.

BROWN: And I wrote this petition that came across in this very legalese, very formal kind of - We affirm that, therefore, we demand that - kind of format.

TOMASSONI: Brown later realized most petitions on the site are not written so formally. Most are written as first person letters that answer three basic questions.

BEN RATTRAY: What you want to change, who has the power to change that and why others should join you.

TOMASSONI: Ben Rattray is the founder and CEO of Change.org. The 31-year-old came up with the idea as a senior in college.

RATTRAY: When I was at Stanford, there was this combined interest, both in entrepreneurship and in political-social change.

TOMASSONI: So in 2007, he decided to make Change.org into a profitable business. Large organizations like the Sierra Club and Oxfam pay to have their petitions promoted on the site, and the revenues from those petitions allow everyone else to use the site for free.

Alan Webber is an industry analyst. He sees Change.org as a leading example of what digital social action should look like. But, he says, it's important to realize its success is wrapped up in the rise of other social media.

ALAN WEBBER: I think it's part of an ecosystem. People are going to share petitions, but they're going to share those petitions via Facebook or via Twitter.

TOMASSONI: There have been at least a thousand successful petitions, according to Change.org. The one that got the most attention was the petition against Bank of America's plan to charge debit card fees.

Rattray acknowledges that many of the campaigns launched on his site are supported by other organizations and people outside of his company. For instance, Jenny Holcomb had already hired a lawyer to help her fight the charges against her daughter before Lydia Brown started the petition drive.

HOLCOMB: I think eventually we would've got, you know, what we wanted to, but I don't think it would've been as soon.

TOMASSONI: Within a few days of the petition launch, the felony assault charges were dropped against her daughter. Lydia Brown has since written two more petitions on Change.org related to autism.

Teresa Tomassoni, NPR News.

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MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.