Constructive Activism, Part V: Mashup Petitions

Politics | Building/Consensus
The last part started with a reference to Ethan Zuckerman, and this one shall as well. Ethan wrote a nice summary of the first four parts, echoing my call for online activists. In this part we’ll go into some core examples of disruptive and constructive activism.


A letter-writing campaign is disruptive to the public officials who are on the receiving end; a petition is constructive, the end result being a document to present to the necessary public officials.

Why not combine the two? Jesse Sage, the program director of Hands Across the Mideast Support Alliance (HAMSA) in Cambridge, had been thinking of for some time in his experience, and finally deployed it for the Free Alaa campaign.

I called Jesse earlier this week (we in fact know each other through the Boston Jewish community, but as recent as a week ago, we were quite ignorant as to each other’s activities.) He explained the simple premise behind the tool: “You can write a letter, but how does anybody know who else has signed it?” They’d been honing the software for some time, but he realized they needed to get it out on the web as the Free Alaa campaign was picking up speed.

The Sunday that that Alaa was jailed, Egyptian blogger SandMonkey immediately suggested that his readers write the Egyptian embassy in Washington. On Monday he supplied some form letters and additional addresses to write. On Tuesday, another well-known Egyptian blogger, Big Pharaoh had blogged a report about the disruptive effect; he had heard that the embassy in Washington was “bombarded with e-mails demanding the release of Alaa and others.” (The Egypt desk at the State Department did not return my call this week.)

Jesse got the the letter-writing/petition form up on Wednesday, and SandMonkey gave the link to it the next day. Jesse also sent it to Gleen Reynolds of Instapundit, who posted the link to it on an update to a Wednesday blog post. A Friday GlobalVoices blog roundup post misattributed the petition to SandMonkey, but, no worry, said Jesse, as some six hundred referrals came from SandMonkey’s website. referred another 375. Of the 2000 referrals, some 1,150 people have signed the petition.

These statistics are all possible because of the single web page set up to manage the service. Some companies have made a business of this. One of the early pioneers, Capital Advantage, provides such a service to 1500 advocacy organizations (I had interviewed with them for a job eight years ago). Of course, the difference is that this data is rarely shared in an open and ongoing way throughout campaigns. Also, disruptive activism may be starting to show its diminishing returns. The volume of postal/email communications to Congress has quadrupled from 50 million in 1995 to 200 million in a decade, and it hasn’t endeared elected officials to form letters (according to this article article and report).

Another often unheralded pioneer has been political consultant Dick Morris. After resigning as Clinton’s chief campaign consultant in 1996 following a sex scandal (his, not the candidate’s), he bought the Internet domain for, wrote a book of the same name, and immediately set upon asking single “poll” questions of Internet users on the website, and sending the results to Congress. Still, Morris didn’t take the additional constructive step of showing the poll results next to each other– I actually spent a couple of days dressing up his data two years ago.

From my romp through the numbers, I devised this conjecture: polls and petitions are complementary tools for governance that no one’s ever wanted to reconcile. Polls are is undemocratic (since citizens aren’t choosing themselves to participate) , whereas petitions and protests are unscientific. Of course, when hundreds of thousands of people march, you don’t need to check the polls, you just have to leave the office with a police escort. But with a petition, the numbers could be deceptive– up or down. What do 1,200 signatures really mean? Who are these people? What countries do they come from? If petitions could communicate a little more demographic information, they might be able to serve as better predictors of public sentiment (and perhaps threaten the polling industry to the extent that personal publishing has been threatening the news business).

I haven’t devoted any time to developing my own such service in the two years hence. But I did realize I could piggyback on some existing tools. A week ago I went to bed on Thursday, wondering what more I could do for Alaa, as the GoogleAds weren’t exactly setting the world on fire. Why be satisfied with just a one-dimensional petition? I remembered the new mashup called Frappr, for “friend mapper” which was a way for communities to use leverage (er, mashup) GoogleMaps to map out communities online. I woke up and sent a note to Ethan and Mary proposing that one be set up, and halfway through the note, I spent the ten minutes setting it up the Free Alaa Frappr Map myself.

I added one more dimension: the color of the pegs. Frappr allows. By default they suggest using blue for men and and red for women, but I felt that it was unimportant (this senstivity was enhanced after seeing a trailer for an upcoming documentary on GenderCrash last weekend.) Instead I figured it would be more useful to go tribal. There were a number of different groups supporting Alaa, and I figured that petitioners would be further motivated to join with their own tribe on the map.

I started with blue for the Drupal Developers, which I identify myself with. Red went to bloggers were red, while those in Global Voices could choose orange. Yellow journalists– why not? White pegs were for just plain ol’ supporters who were none of the above. For the coup de grace, I reserved the last color, green for government officials. I’m very much looking forward to getting the first of them.

I’m curious how this will map out when we get to 1,200. As of this writing, we only have 19. Still, in that nineteen are people from four continents and ten countries. Amazing.

Frappr isn’t ready for prime time just yet. For the higher scales (i.e., from further out), all the pegs on a single city overlap each other, without giving any sense of their aggregate numbers.

Geographic location and tribal identities are just the start. Suppose you invite petitioners to enter a little more demographic information, and you’ll get some pretty rich data. Targets of campaigns may actually get smart and propose this arrangement: If you hold all the form letters, I’ll agree to spend time with you going over your data. Sounds like the omniscient party database DataMart, no? The difference is, you as a petitioner will control your own data.

One other aspect of the Frappr is the part of the page in between the banner and the map. They’re the advertisements that ostensibly pay for the site. (Frappr gets them from Yahoo). When the ads for your map are for credit cards and easy mortgages, that’s a sign you should start to worry about its solvency. In Part II, I discussed the necessity that even campaigns “on the cheap” ought to be prepared to spend a little bit of money. As I wrote about Abuzz and Meetup (see last year’s article on Community Devotion), successful communities should not grow dependent on social software if they’re not asked to contribute towards its sustainability.

Here’s an idea: charge at minimum something like 50 cents a petition signature. People can pledge money (with possible contingencies), or commit when they see fit. Some money will go to the hosting of the webpage, so that ads aren’t necessary; other moneys will go to the cause. And you’ll have a way to demonstrate your community’s commitment to your target audience. A thousand signatures of fifty cents each may not be as strong as a fifty people in the street protesting. But it will at least be more valuable than a thousand signatures pledging nothing.