You may have heard of change.org lately. If you haven’t, then you’ve certainly heard about a couple of the causes that have used the website to create change in their communities. Just a couple weeks ago, the new documentary Bully premiered initially with an R rating. After 17-year-old Katy Butler started a campaign on change.org, the MPAA then changed the rating to PG-13 after her petition received more than 275,000 signatures (it has since risen to over half a million), including those from Ellen DeGeneres, Justin Beiber and several Congressmen and women. Just yesterday, the next big petition hit the news: high school senior Austin “Fish” Fisher was banned from walking with his graduating class because of too many missed days of school as a result of taking his mother to cancer treatments. After over 100,000 people signed the petition, today it was announced that the school administration will wave the rule and allow Fish to graduate with his class. That’s a lot of change in a very short amount of time.
So what is change.org? Simply put, it’s a platform to start campaigns to create change in the community. Sometimes that’s the local community, such as helping the families keep their homes. Sometimes it’s promoting change on a global scale, such as changing how homosexuals are treated in South Africa and Ecuador. As expected, the Trayvon Martin case has climbed onto the site as well.
It’s great that such a simple thing to put together as an online petition can create such big change. But I wonder if it’s a safe thing to do. Think about this: What if Fish played hookey for 14 days–the number of days a student can miss at his school and still walk at graduation–and the two days over the allowance were the ones spent on his mother’s cancer treatment. Is it still fair to allow him to walk? This is the kind of detail that can be left out of a petition, and then suddenly 100,000 people are making changes based on false information. The other danger is that it’s too easy to sign a petition. It scares me that hundreds of thousands of people can sign a petition without any assurance that they’ve read the petition, understand the circumstances, or even care about the cause. All of a sudden you have serious decisions being influenced by a lot of people who don’t know what they’re talking about.
The Internet is a breeding ground for this kind of problem. Reddit’s attack on Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan is the perfect example. They zeroed in on him for allegedly supporting SOPA (which he didn’t), creating pullryan.com among other tactics in an effort to get him to oppose SOPA, similar to their success in getting godaddy.com to change it’s mind about supporting SOPA. In this case, a bunch of people piled on a cause based on false information, in order to accomplish something positive. And that’s not the only time Reddit has messed up.
It’s noble to help veterans and bone marrow recipients keep their homes, or for Molly Katchpole to stand up to Bank of America to protest the $5 debit card fee and Verizon when they tried to implement a $2 fee for online payment. It feels good to have that kind of power. I just hope that it will be used to represent everyone’s best interest and that it doesn’t just become another outlet for groupthink.