"The core idea of Change.org is to do for online campaigning what YouTube did for video," Wikler said. "With YouTube, anyone could post a video, and it could actually go viral. It takes 30 seconds to start a petition on [Change.org, and] you don't have to pay for servers if it gets to millions of people."¦ The barrier to entry is zero. And if you strike a nerve, you have an institutional rocket pack."
Around the time that Change.org made this pivot, MoveOn launched a similar tool called SignOn.org, which lets members start their own petitions and offers institutional support for causes that earn the membership's attention. In just over a year, SignOn.org Director Steven Biel said, the website has created more than 18,000 petitions, and more than 600 gained enough traction to use MoveOn's master e-mail list. Those campaigns have brought surprising victories, such as Utah Gov. Gary Herbert's recent decision to veto a bill banning sex education in schools. Since Trayvon Martin was killed, Biel added, "we've seen a wave of African-Americans using SignOn.org to demand justice for family members killed under racially suspicious circumstances."
By offering popular services for free, such as Craigslist and YouTube, Change.org and SignOn.org have discovered how to harness the power of abundance in online politics. In broadcast media, because airtime or print space is scarce and expensive, political messages must be crafted and delivered in sound bites. But on the Internet, the costs of communication are low. Thus, instead of relying on political professionals trying to predict which issues may pack a punch, these websites open the gates to everyone. Only 2 or 3 percent of the petitions catch on, but a process of natural selection allows the stronger ones to spread.
Internet-driven organizations are better suited to these campaigns because they can test the preferences of their members and then focus on "whatever issue is getting the attention of the public right now," said David Karpf, who teaches media studies at Rutgers University and just authored The MoveOn Effect. Older advocacy groups that attract members via direct mail and rely on professional staff to chart their course are at a disadvantage. While they lumber along, planning strategy and budgets according to quarterly and yearly targets, Internet-powered activists can respond quickly to whichever headlines are drawing public attention — and divert support from the older groups.
Is there a downside to the democratization of political organizing? Change.org's Wikler professes no fear of "petition fatigue" — at least, he says, "not the way I worry about voter fatigue."¦ There's still a lot of injustice out there that people haven't gotten together to address." On the national stage, this has fostered a sort of petition inflation: Congress won't blink at 100,000 signatures on a petition, but it will notice 1 million. Most of these petitions, however, have state, local, and corporate targets that tend to react with more sensitivity to broadsides from an aroused citizenry.