Your online petition is worthless

Petitions sure seemed a lot more meaningful back in the day.
Petitions sure seemed a lot more meaningful back in the day. This one dates to 1877, and was signed by Frederick Douglass Jr. and his family, in addition to other notable black men and women suffragists in Washington DC.

In this season of rage, online petitions have transformed Facebook feeds into walls of exhortation. Sign this so that the Electors will stop Trump! Sign this to halt the pipeline! Sign this to spin the Earth backward!

I exaggerate. But in moments like this, my inner Daria (yes, some level of my consciousness has absorbed the persona of 90’s MTV buzzkiller-par-excellence Daria Morgendorffer) whispers, “they’re all useless.”

And I’m inclined to believe her. Here’s why.

Back in the day, people worked their butts off collecting signatures of the pen and ink variety. These signatures would be hand-delivered to the subject of the petition, the person that the organizers and signees identified as having the power to grant the petition’s request. This undertaking has become significantly simpler with online petition sites, thus losing most of the gravitas of the old-fashioned approach. And not only are they easier to orchestrate, they are less rigorous in their targeting and follow-through.

Working with various campaigns and nonprofits, I’ve seen organizations take different approaches to creating online petitions. At best, they’ve been a ploy to get your email. With your email, savvy digital campaigners will attempt to move you up the “ladder of engagement,” coaxing you to become ever more active in their cause through small digital actions like giving your email, liking their social media profiles, and donating money. At worst, petitions are a vanity project organizations use to achieve an arbitrary metric of public support. People sign them with the faith that they’ll be used in some larger strategy, without realizing their signature is just an ego-boost for some communications director.

And, lest we forget, the sites that host these petitions are themselves businesses, and their business is your email. Non-profits, charities, and political campaigns pay the likes of Change.org and its ilk to access your email address.

These sites list their wins, of course. It turns out, petitions are quite useful at creating bad PR for companies. Petitions are less than useful for achieving political goals, especially at the national level. Why? Because petitions are tactics and need to be part of a larger strategy. They are a means to an end, not an end in and of themselves.

Which gets to the most pernicious effect of petitions: they tend to give people a sense of accomplishing something, when in reality they’ve accomplished not much at all.

Sign petitions? Sure, but use the “Yes, AND…?” approach that I’m stealing shamelessly from improv.

Yes, sign it if the organizer of the petition has a larger strategy to achieve the petition’s goal (and beyond), AND hold them accountable to do what they say. If they don’t follow up with what actions they’ve taken, complain to the site.

Yes, sign the petition AND call your members of Congress, your local representatives, and your local officials. Calling is the most effective way to register your opinion, quickly.

Yes, sign the petition and meet with like-minded folks in person, on a regular basis. Political change requires warm bodies in the street, in the town meeting, and in the offices of local representatives. Facebook Events and Meetup.com are promising places to start if you’re looking for fellow activists.

I am a huge hypocrite, of course, because I, in the turmoil of the past month, signed petitions that I full well know will achieve nothing. But I’ve resolved to call my representatives and to organize with the people in my community. I’ll keep you posted on our progress.