Published February 25, 2012
The online petition movement has come a long way from chain mails that threaten eternal bad luck for failing to forward a message to at least five friends.
Last year, a 22-year-old part-time nanny complained in a petition about Bank of America’s $5-a-month debit card fee. After hundreds of thousands of people signed on, the image-bruised bank dropped the fee.
Online petitions last year also helped spur state proposals for a so-called "Caylee’s Law" to toughen requirements on parents to report missing children, in the wake of the Casey Anthony case. The Obama White House even responded to its own petition site after enough people clamored for the administration to weigh in on a controversial online piracy law.
The digital petition world has notched a string of successes over the past 12 months, and just now seems to be taking off. As Facebook and Twitter revolutionize the way people connect with one another, the merger of social media and political activism is creating a wave of its own.
"It’s really been this explosive growth over this past year in particular," Ben Rattray, founder and CEO of Change.org, told FoxNews.com.
The San Francisco-based company launched five years ago, but only started focusing on petitions in the past year or so. Rattray said the site went from gaining 1,000 members a month to 1 million a month now. He said more than 10,000 petitions a month are currently being started on the site, and he’s projecting 25 million Change.org members by the end of the year — up from 8 million now.
What’s the appeal? Rattray reasoned that the petitions are allowing everyday people to coalesce into their own lobbying force — on very particular issues, quickly and publicly, at the local and national levels.
He cited the case of Molly Katchpole, who launched the Bank of America debit-card fee petition. Five years ago, he said, Katchpole would have been "miffed" about the fee and complained to friends — maybe even closed her bank account.
Instead, she launched a petition that fed into heavy media coverage and additional social media campaigns.
"(Bank of America) just recognized the potential damage they’re exposed to," he said. "They’re facing a rapid-response lobbying group that is now their customer base."
Rattray, who started the site with a former classmate at Stanford University, said he wasn’t originally going to get into the social networking business.
The 31 year old, who grew up in a conservative household, said he went to school to be an investment banker. He studied political science and economics. But Rattray said he started getting more into social advocacy after one of his brothers came out as gay. He watched the rapid rise of Facebook — which is now preparing to go public on an epic scale — and figured he could use similar technology to connect people not just around personal interests but issues.
Several other petition-oriented websites have sprouted up around the same concept.
One of them, Care2, predates Change.org. The company started in 1998 and has since focused mainly on environmental and human rights causes. The social network site is a forum for an army of bloggers but also uses petitions to advance its goals.
"It’s about empowering individuals to have a voice and take part in … collective actions," founder Randy Paynter said.
Paynter said he got the idea for the site from chain emails. By themselves, those emails tended to vanish into the digital ether — so he started to aggregate petitions.
Like on Change.org, the petitions range from the serious to the slightly bizarre. As of Saturday, a petition to outlaw "vanity tattoos" for cats in Russia had more than 18,000 signatures. Another calling on Kardashian-family companies to stop selling furs had attracted more than 100,000 signatures.
Care2 also claims to see more than 10,000 petitions started every month. Paynter said the site has 18 million members.
Washington has hardly been deaf to this trend. Last fall, the White House launched its own petition site, We the People, promising to offer an official response to any petition that attracts at least 25,000 signatures in 30 days.
Among the petitions the administration has responded to were those concerning controversial anti-online piracy bills in Congress. The administration, in response to the petitions, said last month that it had concerns about whether the proposals could undermine Internet freedom.
Within days, congressional leaders put the proposals on hold.
Not all petitions lead to definitive legislative action. In the case of the "Caylee’s Law" proposals, many states have struggled to actually get those reporting requirements passed despite the public pressure following the trial last year. Thousands of other petitions gather a modest number of signatures, and then fade away.
Paynter said progress from petitions is often incremental. "But the reality is, that’s the way that all change works," he said.
While the petition sites allow people to band together and take their grievances directly to lawmakers, another site has also just launched meant to give candidates themselves a more direct platform for reaching voters.
The site, PolitiView, launched last month, allows candidates in races across the country to post campaign videos and web addresses on a personalized page.
The site is subscription-based for politicians, though free for everyone else. The idea, eventually, is that a voter could type in his or her address, then see a listing of the candidates running in the area for different offices — and be able to click to their pages. Ballot-initiative campaigns could also subscribe.
Creator Susan Nightingale compared the site to airline-price aggregators — only for political campaigns.
"It’s a campaign dashboard," she said. "This is direct democracy. It couldn’t be any more direct."
At Change.org, Rattray has ambitious plans for the future. He plans to grow his 100-person staff to 200 by the end of the year. The company currently has offices in three U.S. cities and a few other countries but plans to expand to 20 countries over the next 12 months.
He said the desire for mass mobilization is not a uniquely American one. But in the U.S., he predicted the site could have a strong impact on the 2012 presidential race.
With so much concern about the influence of money in politics — particularly through so-called super PACs — he anticipates a campaign to compel candidates to crack down on super PAC influence.
But the site is user-driven, and he conceded his staff’s role is just to mediate.
"We wake up every day and have no idea what’s going to be started on the site," he said.