Online petitions? How useful are they?

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I’ve organised a lot of petitions over the last few years — some successful, some not, some spectacularly successful. Most of them were paper (hard copy) petitions, but increasingly, colleagues and union activists ask for online petitions.

So I thought I would look back from my experience — as well as examine others’ views — on how successful online petitions are.

There is little doubt that hard-copy petitions are a powerful organising tool. Hard-copy petitions have been in the organising tool-kit for centuries.

They are especially useful organising tools because they spur activists to talk one-on-one to other people in the community — or workplace in the case of many union petitions. A petition can be powerful, especially if a significant number of people in the target population (e.g. a workplace, suburb, etc) sign it. Likewise, gathering few signatures — both hardcopy and online — for your petition is a risk many organisations take. (And obviously many official organisations, such as Parliaments, require hard-copy petitions over online ones.)

I prefer hard-copy petitions over online petitions because they are such a useful organising tool. The one-on-one conversation that should take place before a person signs the petition is a powerful thing. Not only is the signer more informed and more likely to engage with future parts of the campaign, but the person collecting signatures (especially a workplace activist) is empowered and emboldened.

The most successful petition I have been involved with was organising the Save VCA petition – which gathered over 13,000 signatures. This made it the third largest petition in Victoria’s history, after a petition with 41,000 signatures calling for women to be given the vote in this state. We deliberately decided to make this a formal petition to Parliament – which required that it be in hard-copy. In addition to gaining the 1000s of signatures, we also engaged and activated scores of activists with the VCA to collect them. And it all built towards a major protest and rally we were planning.

What about online petitions?

There is no doubt that they are ubiquitous. And the views of many is that they are useless:

“According to the Congressional Management Foundation,” writes Johnson, “the House of Representatives got 99,053,399 messages via the Internet in 2004.” Your petition really isn’t going to get read; the reason organizations try so hard to get you to sign it is that “politicians and advocacy groups value your email address over your voice.”

It is certainly true that the power of online petitions have dramatically reduced in recent years. The days of CEOs and politicians panicking when facing a barrage of emails and petitions online is well and truly over. As Eric Lee of Labourstart fame has said in the past, progressive organisations could once mobilise 100s of people online to get a response. Today — in the age of Get Up and MoveOn, online petitions with fewer than several thousand signatures get routinely dismissed.

The impact of the online petition has also been diluted by social networking — especially Facebook where causes can be “liked” and on Twitter where they are followed, rather than signed.

The risk for someone signing your online petition, as noted by Johnson (quoted earlier), is that the organisation uses your email and contact details to continue to send you information after you have taken action.

This is, of course, half the point. From an activist organisation’s perspective, getting someone to sign the petition is the first step towards turning that supporter into an activist. Where Johnson is wrong is in saying that “advocacy groups value your email address over your voice” — this is just a cynical throw away.

Nevertheless, there are times when online petitions are useful beyond the supporter-member-activist-leader pipeline.

A recent petition I have organised focused on a university that increased its parking fees for staff and students by over 100%. Unsurprisingly, staff and students were unhappy. With a relatively small pool of concerned people (around 2000 staff) and with campuses in regional locations where staff and students make up a sizeable portion of the local population – petitions can be very useful tools — even online ones.

Normally, I would have counselled a hard-copy petition, and suggested a petition-blitz, asking our delegates and activists to get signatures from as many colleagues as possible. In this case however, it was important to act quickly — especially due to the short time-frame and media interest.

With less than 2000 staff “in the pool” — an online petition (created using Forms from Google Docs) was created, and an email blast was sent to all staff. In just a few hours, over 300 staff had signed it and in less than a week, there were over 830 signatures. Definitely enough to demonstrate the displeasure of staff, both to the media and to the Vice Chancellor.

Of course, I agree with Johnson that many online petitions are less than useful. Without a clear timeframe, realistic pool of potential supporters (thousands not tens of thousands), and the risk of being seen as “just another online petition”, online petitions can be a waste of time and effort.

But used correctly, they can be useful indeed.

One response to “Online petitions? How useful are they?”

  1. Stephen Day Avatar

    I’ve only started using on-line petitions recently – e.g. – so too early for me to tell where and how they work best.

    Like you I’ve targeted them to small workplaces rather than govt or large agencies. One of the benefits I can see is that it is an easy way for union members in other parts of the country to express their support for fellow union members. That helps build a sense of being part of a national movement rather than just a site-based union.

    It also works as an easy way of people aligning themselves publicly with a cause (because their name is visible on-line), which is an important step for converting them into a more active union member.

    And they integrate so well with Facebook. That example I linked to above has been gathering steam mostly because of Facebook, rather than our own direct communications with members or students.

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