Anti-Brexit petition on UK government site, as of early morning Sunday, 26 June

There should be an online upgrade of the old saying, “You can fool all the people some of the time…,” one that says how easy it is to create an online campaign, but how hard it is to “reach scale,” as the digerati like to say.

Unless. Unless, you have a simple, dramatic story, massive media attention, and thousands of people who feel like what’s happening really matters to them.

That’s what happened when the Clinton impeachment and the Iraq invasion were wall-to-wall on our televisions and used email to build a progressive constituency through social networking. That’s what happened when conservatives used blogs and social media in 2009 and 2010 to channel grassroots frustration into the emerging Tea Party movement.

An online petition to revisit the UK Brexit decision has rocketed past 2.5 million signatures in the two days since Wales and most of England beat out London, Scotland and Ireland in the “Leave” vote.

I’m curious what petitions or Kickstarters have scaled up faster, but however unique, it’s a stunning demonstration of how big, simple narratives, very personal stakes, and massive media attention work in combination to create large online crowds quickly.

Purveyors of technology, organizing models and “storytelling” like to talk about their tools as accelerants (frankly, as shortcuts) in crowd-building. But while a sound model should be your starting point whenever possible, you cannot design “momentum moments.”

Our advocacy tools should be current and integrated into our daily work. Our “theories of change” should be community-informed and capacity-driven. Our stories should be authentic. But massive scale is like true love or a world-changing vaccine: We can work toward it. We can be more or less ready. But we cannot create it from scratch.

I know very little about the dynamics that led to the “Leave” vote or the prospects for a reversal (which seem slim as of today). But the petition’s massive show of protest —or remorse, depending on who signed—exemplifies how technology can be the rod that channels power when the right conditions unleash lightning.

Photo by Ricardo_F/Flickr