Online petitions more than just hype

In the digital age, the power of the people takes on a whole new meaning. Between page hits, followers, likes and subscribers, it is hard to think of anything that is not, in some way, part of the game of online audience engagement. News and social media are well suited to political life, an arena that has always sought to reach a mass audience. Now, online petitioning – an old tool of political activism – has emerged as a controversial new media phenomenon.

Online petitions are not actually new. They first appeared at the dawn of the Internet age in a very unsophisticated form as chain letters that supporters signed their names to and passed forward via email. These were almost entirely ineffective, ending their lives at the bottom of inboxes in the dark corners of the Internet.

Today’s online petition is a much sleeker, more sophisticated tool.

Change.org, the gold standard in online petitioning, offers easy-to-use applications that allow petitioners to easily draft a petition and share via social media.

One of Change.org’s success stories is a petition started by part-time nanny Molly Katchpole in 2011. Her petition was against an extra $5 fee that Bank of America proposed for using a certain bank card. Her petition attracted 300,000 signatures, and after a month, Bank of America announced they had decided not to charge the new fee.

It is not entirely clear that Katchpole’s Change.org petition was the direct cause of the policy change, but there is a somewhat convincing correlation. The case Change.org’s founder Ben Rattray made in an interview with Fortune Magazine May 15 was that general social media buzz is hard to quantify and easy to ignore, while a petition that aggregates support for a clearly definable goal is likely to be taken more seriously.

Defenses of online petitions by proponents like Rattray follow criticisms of online “slacktivism” from a variety of organizations, including an ad campaign by UNICEF with copy such as, “Like us on Facebook and we will vaccinate zero kids against polio.” This was done to bring attention that “likes” don’t do anything. It was meant to be sarcastic.

Critics point out that changing a profile picture, retweeting something or signing an online petition does not actually get anything done. The implication is that the self-satisfaction that comes from signing a petition replaces the motivation for more productive action.

This is, in many cases, true. Complaining on Facebook or on Change.org won’t solve concrete problems that are first world or otherwise. What it does do is provide an accumulation of positive capital in the information economy.

In situations like the Bank of America petition, where large groups of people publicly support specific goals, information gathered via online petitions can be very effective toward real change.

A recent Time Magazine cover story characterized 18-33 year olds – who are classified as millennials – as self-centered and unmotivated. This is a characterization that falls in line with accusations of “slacktivism” by critics of online petitioning.

However, millennials are at the forefront of a world that centers upon sharing information and a world that provides the necessary tools to do so efficiently and on a wide scale. That kind of mass engagement is what political activists have been seeking for years. It doesn’t replace other forms of activism; it simply improves upon structures that are already in place for creating political change. Sure, it isn’t difficult to sign a petition online, but that isn’t the problem – it’s the point.