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The Change in Change.org

By Tom Watson on October 9, 20083 Comments

Way back in the dark ages, before there was a Google, some of the bright digerati both inside and outside of media companies had saying the loved to drop into presentations or spout at conferences. “Content,” they’d say with confidence, “is king.” Many of those who used that phrase in the early days of the commercial Internet (ie, the 90s) were misguided in their use of that phrase. While they were right about content being king in all forms of media, most were dead wrong about just who would be creating that content – and how we’d all consume it. Of course, it wasn’t traditional media companies who would control the new medium with their old broadcast and print models; they’d merely be part of it, and we’d all create content on a nearly constant basic. The consumer became the creator and back again.

Flash forward to the CauseWired web.

In the roughly ten months since I signed a contract to write CauseWired, many more platforms dedicated to some form of online social activism have come online. Some create ways of building people-powered campaigns across all of the million-plus nonprofits in this country; others go way beyond in defining “cause” to include political and advocacy causes, and small-scale personal efforts to change some of part of public life. The tubes are opening up, and the CauseWired web is beginning to mimic in some miniature form the vast opportunity for consumption that the web currently tracked by Google offers. Action-related databases are growing and succeeding – and they’re beginning to be integrated into the rest of the web. The Social Actions API, the DonorsChoose contests and widgets, the ubiquity of Causes on Facebook, the vast distribution of Kiva opportunities – these are all signs that online social activism is blowing out of its silo forever.

But I’m fascinated by the change in direction that one of the more well-known platforms took this week. Change.org is featured in CauseWired (I did my reporting last winter) because I was impressed with the ideas of founder Ben Rattray, who seemed to place an emphasis on impact, telling stories, and partnering with nonprofits already doing great work on the ground. Here’s what Rattray told me last winter:

“Obviously, we all care about the world’s problems but there was this chasm between the desire for change and practical access to the means for change.  When I was in school, social networks still hadn’t hadn’t been applied to philanthropy. There were real concrete problems for giving, volunteering, taking action. The traditional means are very impersonal, you have idea where your money’s going, no idea what the impact is. Truthfully, your $25 doesn’t matter.”

And Change.org was a very interesting platform: it tried to limit choices of those who wanted to take social actions, to make people choose, to present an intelligent selection of those choices. It was clea1rly an experient, very much a first pass.

The new Change.org is a more mature product – and a more compelling platform for social action. Guided by editor josh Levy, I took a look at the new Change.org just before its relaunch this week, and I was very much impressed. The site has embraced a strong commitment to content and story-telling – to making the case for support for an array of causes presented in several organizing folders with names like “Stop Genocide” and “End Homelessness.” And there are real people – accomplished bloggers and activists – behind each subject area, creating stories, building links, and putting forth potential actions. At the genocide sub-site, blogger Michelle F. writes about bombing in Darfur, the Obama and McCain stances on American intervention, and international law. She posts videos and links to other blogs – standard stuff, though well done. But the genocide site also presents the opportunity to take action through raising money, taking part in advocacy campaigns, or simply signing on other supporters. And there are fun ways for people to hook up by sending each other “compliments” on their actions. And I hear people-oriented contests and campaigns are in the works.

So the real test: I was surfing around Change.org and finding it fascianting. I sent stuff to friends. Threw some compliments. Watched some videos, followed some links. Learned a bunch. I looked up and a speedy hour had flown by. For this feed-obsessed, jittery-fingered media consumer, that is a lot of time.

When it comes to causes it seems….content really is king.

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