Jonathan Alter for Today Online: The next big thing in cyberspace?

March 12th, 2012

Today Online
March 12, 2012
by Jonathan Alter


Everyone remembers how fast eBay, Facebook, YouTube and other websites that have changed our world grew.

It’s almost six years since Twitter was founded. What’s the next web tool poised for explosive growth?

It may be Change.org, which boasts almost 10 million active users and is adding more than a million users a month. The big question is not whether its investors and about 100 employees will get rich off social entrepreneurship. It’s whether Change.org will change the world.

That URL went through several lame incarnations in recent years before becoming, in its own words, “a social action platform that empowers anyone, anywhere, to start, join and win campaigns for social change”.

The site is neutral – think YouTube – and hosts about 10,000 campaigns a month from more than 150 countries. Some of them are sponsored by organisations such as Amnesty International and the Humane Society that pay the site to host their petitions; most, however, are homegrown efforts focused on local issues.

So far, the online petitions have garnered anywhere from a few dozen signatures to more than a million. The biggest – with more than 1.3 million signatures – is one calling for passage of Caylee’s Law, named after Caylee Anthony, which would make it a felony for parents or guardians not to notify law enforcement of a missing child within 24 hours.

Like Twitter, Change.org has the potential to reorder power relationships in a hugely beneficial way.

In a brilliant forthcoming book, Why Nations Fail, MIT economist Daron Acemoglu and Harvard political scientist James Robinson analyse hundreds of years of world history to explain that the fate of nations is determined not by culture, weather or geography (look at the differences between North and South Korea) but by the strength of political and economic institutions.

Those countries with “inclusive” institutions that respond to the will of the masses, not just the elites, succeed. Those with “extractive” businesses and governments that use crony capitalism (or crony socialism) to stifle competition and exploit others, fail.

Thus Nogales, Arizona, is prosperous and Nogales, Mexico, just across the border is poverty stricken. The authors argue that even economically successful regimes, such as China’s ,will flounder if they don’t open up.


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