This week’s revelations about the evolving mercenary status of Change.org and Salsa Labs are just the latest iteration of the ongoing fight to maintain space for activism in a relentlessly profit-motivated field — in this case, that of online organizing. Activists and non-profits are reeling from a double-dose of a familiar, bitter brew of betrayal: The technology they helped create for their struggles for justice has been transformed into a private commodity.
April Pedersen and Chris Lundberg founded the for-profit Salsa Labs as a spinoff from their non-profit Democracy in Action, using technology developed and supported for non-profits and political campaigns. They were both providing a service to the politically progressive community in the United States and looking to that community to incubate their growth. But by 2010, donations and grants to Democracy in Action fell and fees for the Salsa Labs services grew. This resulted in their August 2011 decision to accept $5 million from the venture capital firm Edison Ventures to fund expansion. At the time the founders announced it as “not just an investment in Salsa Labs; it’s an investment in the community and the 2K+ organizations that use our organizing platform.” This week, however, came a very different announcement; Lundberg and Pedersen was ousted by Salsa Labs’ board of directors, which is now dominated by venture capitalists.
In contrast, Change.org was never a non-profit organization (as its .org domain might suggest), but rather a B corporation, which is a type of for-profit expected to serve the public good as well as its shareholders. In just two years after its founding in 2007, it amassed nearly 20 million users and generated $15 million in annual advertising revenue. The site’s early successes generated headlines, buzz and followers, such as with Molly Katchpole’s victory against Bank of America debit card fees. The earliest partners — or, rather, clients — paying to promote their petitions to other users were familiar names in the progressive scene like the Sierra Club, Credo Wireless and Amnesty International. But, recently, memos leaked to the press that lay out the next phase of the company’s growth: opening itself to corporate advertising, astro-turf campaigns and any other paying customer (other than hate groups), making it possible for the site to raise revenue from different sides of a given controversy by promoting dueling petitions.
Many progressives in the U.S. feel that they’ve been double-crossed. Within the activist community many individuals and organizations gave time, energy and resources to help develop up these structures, creating the illusion of a stakeholder relationship. Because our networks and efforts built them, we believe their value should stay within our networks. But rather than viewing these two organizations as having strayed from their principles or having fallen victim to a hostile takeover, we should recognize that they’re simply following the profit-seeking logic on which they were founded. They always viewed users of their technology as commodities and consumers. Commodities eventually get sold; consumers have only the choice of whether to buy.
The path that Change.org would follow could be foretold from its conception as a for-profit designed to gather users’ email addresses as a product. The fact that the product was initially for sale to an exclusive audience — in this case, progressive organizations — only served to pump up the value. It would be interesting to know whether the pitch that founder Ben Rattray used to secure his initial $2 million from an angel investor included the endgame scenario of opening the site to a broader constituency. Was masquerading as a progressive organization for a while integral to his business plan? Currently, Rattray is out in pitch-mode, seeking more venture capital. By now we’ve learned our lesson, hopefully: Any company that builds lists in order to sell them will eventually sell them to the customers with the biggest wallets, and odds are they will not be progressives.
Whether it’s Salsa Labs, Change.org, Nationbuilder, Care2.com, Blue State Digital, Blackbaud, Convio, GetActive, Kintera, eTapestry or Common Ground, they all have the ingredients in their organizational building blocks for co-opting the efforts of activists into corporate profits.
Part of the danger lies in that we are a technology-worshipping society; activists can be guilty of this more than most. We rely on technology sometimes for good reasons, but no matter how often a Facebook page can seem to help build our campaigns, many of us later find ourselves wishing we had relied on tools more under our control, ones that form stronger personal connections. While decrying the loss of Salsa Labs or Change.org might feel cathartic, it would be much more worth our while to take a hard look at the underlying habits that prevent us, and our organizations, from implementing and supporting solutions that better serve our long-term visions and goals.
Online organizing doesn’t have to end in hostile takeovers or sell outs. There are other models for building online tools that are based in non-profit organizations that put their values first. We are both involved in Corporate Action Network, whose online organizing platform is designed to ensure that its means match the ends, rather than expecting the noble ends to materialize from a profit-seeking structure. So while Corporate Action Network operates in an orbit with companies like Change.org and Salsa Labs, our focus is on holding corporations accountable and building capacity among leaders working on anti-corporate-abuse campaigns. Our goal is to build something that can’t be bought. Our plan is the opposite of a business plan, because it is designed to be of no value to the corporate world. Users can’t be turned into customers or commodities. Corporate Action Network works with campaign partners to build progressive infrastructure that stays progressive. It won’t sell your email lists, because it doesn’t own your email lists. It won’t sell access to the site for profit and, for better or worse, won’t attract profit seekers.
That said, the point isn’t for activists to look for the next new “product” to replace what has been lost. Maybe it would be better to discover new appreciation for the incredible power of what we already have. The for-profit world is very savvy at recognizing the value of the network effect. Our social networks, campaigns and credibility are the irreplaceable raw materials — whether online or on the ground. Whatever structures we entrust them to will be the structures that grow and strengthen with our victories. But the lesson from this past week is fairly clear: Make sure your methods place you squarely on the path to the future you have in mind, or your means might end up turning into your end.
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