RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Petitions have been a common form of protest throughout history, but gone are the days of having to use handwritten letters to bring attention to a cause. Now, petitions are online. One company, called Change.org, has contributed to the phenomenon. NPR's Teresa Tomassoni reports how the company's website allows people to start change in their communities with a few clicks of a mouse.
TERESA TOMASSONI, BYLINE: When Jenny Holcomb's 15-year-old daughter Emily was charged with felony assault in Hamilton, Alabama for slapping a teacher, she was shocked.
JENNY HOLCOMB: The sheriff's department was standing there, served me papers and wanted to serve Emily papers until I told them that, you know, she was a child with autism that was nonverbal.
TOMASSONI: Afterwards, Holcomb says a friend wrote about the incident on Facebook.
HOLCOMB: And from Facebook it spreaded. And that's when Lydia Brown contacted me and asked me, you know, if she could do a petition to have the charges and stuff dropped on Emily.
TOMASSONI: The woman who wrote the petition, Lydia Brown, is autistic herself. She's been an advocate for people with the disorder since high school. But the 18-year-old Georgetown University student had never written a petition before.
LYDIA BROWN: So I was just kind of like, I don't know how I should do this. I don't know if there's a template anywhere.
TOMASSONI: Some friends suggested she use Change.org., a website which lets people write petitions and collect electronic signatures online to protest or support causes that interest them.
BROWN: And I wrote this petition that came across in this very legalese, very formal kind of - We affirm that, therefore, we demand that - kind of format.
TOMASSONI: Brown later realized most petitions on the site are not written so formally. Most are written as first person letters that answer three basic questions.
BEN RATTRAY: What you want to change, who has the power to change that and why others should join you.
TOMASSONI: Ben Rattray is the founder and CEO of Change.org. The 31-year-old came up with the idea as a senior in college.
RATTRAY: When I was at Stanford, there was this combined interest, both in entrepreneurship and in political-social change.
TOMASSONI: So in 2007, he decided to make Change.org into a profitable business. Large organizations like the Sierra Club and Oxfam pay to have their petitions promoted on the site, and the revenues from those petitions allow everyone else to use the site for free.
Alan Webber is an industry analyst. He sees Change.org as a leading example of what digital social action should look like. But, he says, it's important to realize its success is wrapped up in the rise of other social media.
ALAN WEBBER: I think it's part of an ecosystem. People are going to share petitions, but they're going to share those petitions via Facebook or via Twitter.
TOMASSONI: There have been at least a thousand successful petitions, according to Change.org. The one that got the most attention was the petition against Bank of America's plan to charge debit card fees.
Rattray acknowledges that many of the campaigns launched on his site are supported by other organizations and people outside of his company. For instance, Jenny Holcomb had already hired a lawyer to help her fight the charges against her daughter before Lydia Brown started the petition drive.
HOLCOMB: I think eventually we would've got, you know, what we wanted to, but I don't think it would've been as soon.
TOMASSONI: Within a few days of the petition launch, the felony assault charges were dropped against her daughter. Lydia Brown has since written two more petitions on Change.org related to autism.
Teresa Tomassoni, NPR News.
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