The Futility of Online Petitions

Note: I originally wrote this little essay as a comment on infoAnarchy, but I felt it was important enough to copy out and put on my website.

It seems to me that one of the great traps of organizing is the online petition. Rather than thinking of creative, effective ways to educate the public and demand change from the powerful, organizers often seem to think it is sufficient to put up a petition or two online and collect signatures.

There's a similar dynamic in the offline world with paper petitions. In my opinion, these petitions can be useful only under one of two circumstances:

Obviously, the first of these circumstances generally has no parallel in the online world (with certain rare exceptions which do not apply here). So, if the petition is to be useful, it will be because it is part of the second circumstance. And I don't see that happening here. The online petitions, by their nature, draw only people who are already interested. This is useless. The interested people are going to be interested if they sign a petition or not, and there's no dynamic which encourages new people to become interested.

Furthermore -- perhaps more dangerously -- people may see signing an online petition as a substitute for more effective action. Someone might not bother to write a letter to eir congresscritter if ey feels he's already made his voice known by signing a petition.

For this reason, I find it absurd that an article entitled "Abolish the DMCA" would contain nothing more than a couple of links to online petitions.

[side note: email petitions are generally even worse. See, e.g., Phil Agre's article on the subject.]

Anti-Copyright 2002 mlc. This essay may be freely pirated and quoted for non-commercial purposes. The author would appreciate being so informed.