My latest for Wired:
What many people fail to realize is that Change.org isn’t a non-profit organization. Though anyone can set up a petition for free, the company makes an awful lot of money from all the data it collects about its online petitions and the people who sign them. It’s not just a path to The People. It’s a Google-like Big Data play.
In amassing data from its 45 million users and the 660,000 petitions they’ve created and signed, the company has unprecedented insight into the habits of online activists. If you sign one animal rights petition, the company says, you’re 2.29 times more likely to sign a criminal justice petition. And if you sign a criminal justice petition, you’re 6.3 times more likely to sign an economic justice petition. And 4.4 times more likely to sign an immigrant rights petition. And four times more likely to sign an education petition. And so on.
Change.org uses this data to serve you petitions you’re more likely to be interested in. And, in many cases, it also uses the stuff as a way of pairing you with paying sponsors you’re more likely to give money to.
It’s an intriguing business, and as it turns out, a rather lucrative one. But for some, it also toes an ethical line. “We’ve sort of created an email industrial complex where we’ll do anything to get people’s email address,” says Clay Johnson, a Presidential Innovation Fellow who, in 2004, co-founded Blue State Digital, a for-profit consulting company that helped develop the Obama campaign’s finely targeted fundraising system.