Since we blogged about Change.org back in 2011, the influence of the online petition platform has continued to grow. It has helped usher in a new era of online activism that has leveled the playing field for grassroots causes.
For example, a November 2011 Change.org petition asking Bank of America to drop a new monthly banking fee started with 22-year-old Molly Katchpole before growing to more than 300,000 signatures. The bank reversed its decision in less than a month. In a similar display of viral activism, a February 2012 petition reached 100,000 signatures and forced car rental company Enterprise to alter its unpopular stance on proposed safety legislation, all in less than 24 hours.
The ease and viral potential of such petitions aren’t the only advantages that activists have gained in the online arena. The Internet has granted them unprecedented degrees of transparency and reach. One great example is SPARK Movement’s recent campaign against the underrepresentation of women in Google Doodles. Harnessing the same sort of online data that is Google’s lifeblood, SPARK was able to publish an entirely fact-based report that supported its cause. The advocacy group also recognized the best way to disseminate their message online, executing “a digital campaign to make sure Google follows through, including a petition on change.org, and a social media campaign organized around the hashtag #doodleus, calling on Google to address the gender balance,” according to the Wall Street Journal’s Jane Spencer.
A closer look
To better understand the mechanics and dynamics at play in such incidents, it helps to take a closer look at online activism and how it works. In his 2010 New Yorker essay “Small Change,” Malcolm Gladwell identifies a “crucial distinction between traditional activism and its online variant: social media are not about this kind of hierarchical organization. Facebook and the like are tools for building networks, which are the opposite, in structure and character, of hierarchies.” When dealing with a hierarchy, one could go straight to the top, but with the decentralized and “enormously resilient” online networks that Gladwell describes, a more complex approach is required.
Gladwell’s essay examines what some have called “Activism 2.0,” a level of integration into daily life that has allowed “people to use technology and social media to habitually contribute to social change with small, practical acts — and, often, clicks,” according to Kristin Ivie. This sea change has been downplayed and criticized with terms like “slacktivism,” but as Bank of America, Google and many other companies have discovered, thousands of mouse clicks can have an impact on the real world. And, while online activism can be a powerful catalyst for positive social change, it can also unfortunately lead to “collateral damage” and other unintended consequences.
Risks and opportunities
Many companies view this still-emerging environment as dangerous and volatile, but it also offers new opportunities. Tom Liacas highlighted this last year in a Social Media Today post. “There are ways to make this a win for the subject under fire and, ultimately, for a world in which more and more of our sticky problems will need to be resolved through large scale dialogues,” he says. Google’s decision to create an International Women’s Day doodle featuring more than 100 women from around the world was an especially smart move, helping transform the pressure of SPARK’s activism into authentic content and positive momentum.
Few companies have access to a vehicle as resonant as the Google Doodle, but the popular microblogging platform Tumblr, which “helps facilitate a kind of entry-level activism, a venue for introducing a broad audience to causes and issues affecting politics, culture and business,” according to Brian Honigman, can be a valuable and versatile tool for engaging and communicating with online activists. Online clothing retailer Aplomb has even taken things a step further by using online activism as a new form of currency. As our real and online worlds become more and more intertwined, such innovative and creative solutions will be key for companies that want to not only protect their reputation from the volatility of online activism, but also harness its vast potential.