online petitions – a new era for public mobilization?

Could you imagine getting 4.5 million people to sign a petition against a planned government act 15 years ago? That would be like getting the entire population of New Zealand to take a piece of paper and a pen in their hands (or at least log-into their e-mail accounts if we consider that in the late 90s ePetitions were coursing through electronic mails already…).

How is this possible you ask? The answer are the call-to-action buttons we find with increased frequency when browsing through the web, such as “Add your voice”, “Sign the petition” or “Take action”.

4.5 million signatures? Well, that’s exactly what Google achieved on its anti-censorship petition last year (L.A. Times). In another case, over 2 million people were asking for justice for Trayvon in April 2012 by adding their voice online.

Not only the degree of mobilization is quite impressive, but also its results. For last year’s presidential debates, three high school girls got CNN to nominate a female moderator for the first time since 1992 by collecting more than 200’000 signatures. A 22-year old nanny got support by 300’000 people in her ask towards the Bank of America to cancel its plans for a $5 monthly debit card fee – which the bank dropped within less than 1 month after the petition was initiated.

The use of petitions as a tool for changing the rules or practices of some form of established authority can be traced back as far as to pharaonic times. Nowadays, the right to place a petition to official authorities is laid down at constitutional level in most modern Nation States and it has been essential for many Nation building processes in past centuries (see e.g. “Petitions in Social History “ by Van Voss).

With the rise of online media however, petitioning has gained completely new dimensions and has gone from the national to the global level.

While the first platforms offering tools for online petitions (e.g. Care2 or PetitionOnline) were created back in 1998/99, the real uprise started roughly 10 years later, when new, well structured organizations entered the sphere, such as  Avaaz, Change or Causes.

Online Petitions make it a lot easier for individuals and organizations to collect public voices for their cause. No need to go on the streets with hundreds of volunteers or have access to lists of potential supporters. Many platforms allow any internet user to participate in supporting a petition. While this brings tremendous advantages in terms of the reach and timeliness of such petitions, it also entails the danger of abuses. One of the major challenge is to secure the legitimacy of such initiatives by guaranteeing that real people which have a true interest in the cause are behind the signatures. If such and other challenges –  actually faced by any kind of online mobilization –  can be handled effectively, then Online Petitions have clearly the potential to generate a true shift in what social mobilization means.

Exciting times to come!

How each of us contributes every day to the digitalization of books…

Have you ever gotten annoyed by trying to re-type blurred characters in order to verify that you really are a “human being” while signing-up for a new online service or booking your flights? I used to get slightly irritated at times, especially when even the third trial did not go through. However, since I am aware that the 10 seconds I use on this little exercise actually benefit a massive project on digitizing books, I’ve come to appreciate the value of this seemingly unproductive activity…

And here’s the story:

Initially invented by Luis von Ahn at the Carnegie Mellon University “captchas” served to prevent spamming and make the internet more secure. But when Luis von Ahn realized that each single day approximately 150’000 hours of human brain activity are wasted to type these characters, he had the brilliant idea to use those freely available hours of productivity for an actual purpose: to digitize printed content. That is when reCAPTCHA was invented. So anytime you see the logo “reCAPTCHA” when verifying that you are not a computer your work contributes to digitizing those 30 % of the content of books that can’t be read by OCR (Optical Character Recognition) – the software used for the digitalization of books.

For each of us individually it is only a marginal investment of personal resources. When combined however, it is a massive step towards digitizing printed content and making it globally accessible; annually 2,5 million books are being digitized with the help of reCAPTCHA. If we can achieve such results by contributing only 10 seconds of our time – imagine what could be done if each of us would invest as little as 10 minutes daily for a common social purpose!

Check out the TEDTalk from Luis von Ahn to learn more about reCAPTCHA and his new project of “massive-scale online collaboration” that by now has over 1 million (TechCrunch, Jan 2013) users: Duolingo.

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