Before the Internet, the best way to make a group of people heard was to have those people sign a petition. Under a common goal, a group of people would sign a petition and have it sent to a person in authority or government. This person is most likely seen as the one person with the power to exercise the changes requested in the petition. It doesn't always work, but when enough people make their views heard in the form of a petition, it is hard to ignore.
Today the Internet provides an easily accessible global platform that makes being heard even easier. Services like 38 Degrees and Change.org aim to make the process of petitioning even easier by allowing people to sign up to petitions regardless of their location in the world. My view of such services when they first appeared was that they would be a great benefit. People could make their views clearer and more people could get behind petitions from the comfort of their own home. Overtime though, I've become less enthusiastic about petition services.
Misplaced Importance on Petitions
While petition services have been used to highlight and push for change in a number of topics that affect society they also have been used for questionable aims.
Over the years of petition services being available there have been a number of petitions started that you have to wonder what significance they have and their importance.
Asking Death to bring back Terry Pratchett? I would love to be reading new books from Terry but we all know that no amount of petitioning is going to make this change happen.
Demanding the BBC re-instate Jeremy Clarkson? After a number of run ins with the BBC it seems that Jeremy's luck has run out. I would love to see Jeremy back on Top Gear but I'm pretty sure that a petition is not going to make him a Top Gear presenter again.
Petitions like these may have started out as harmless fun, but the problem with them is the misplaced importance put on them. While Clarkson's petition to be re-instated has reached just over the one million mark, another petition calling for people to be automatically registered into the organ donor list has only attracted just over sixty thousand signatures. What's more important?
The Empty Gesture
Petition services make signing a petition easy. Fill in the form on the page and you're done. That's it. You never have to see that petition again or even have to follow up to it to see what happens. So, is signing these petitions an empty gesture or do they genuinely make a difference?
I've signed petitions like these in the past, but not even thirty seconds after signing the form am I doing something else and I quickly forget I even signed it. That's not to say though that the petition hasn't made a difference. In time petitions have brought about change and made a difference. The question is, if you didn't sign the petition would it still have made a difference? Also, is there weight behind the number of signatures that a petition contains?
Maybe signing a petition should involve more than just signing the petition and sharing your support on social networks, but what else is there to do? Fund the petition with money from your own pocket? Attend a rally in support of the petition. These are definitely options, but for most people signing the petition, just signing it is all they want to do.
Another Digital Distraction
The big drawback to petition services is that they are digital tools and therefore suffer from the same single fault that all digital tools and services suffer from. They are a distraction.
When I walk through the centre of town there are usually people hanging about with clipboards asking for a few minutes of your time. Be honest, when faced with people with clipboards, do you usually skirt past them or reply quickly, "You don't have the time."?
I usually do one or the other and I'm guessing I'm not alone based on the number of people I see stopping to chat. While most of the time I probably could spare a few minutes, there are times when I am trying to be somewhere at a specific time. So no time for distractions.
The same can be said for petition services. When you sign up for one petition, you could end up being put on the mailing list for other petitions or you could sign up to be notified about what happens to petitions after you have signed them. For a couple of weeks there it seemed I was getting an email every other day from these petition services. I started unsubscribing from the various petitions I had signed as well as unsubscribing from the petition services themselves.
What started as a tool for bringing about change simply became another digital distraction. It had lost it's value for me.
Petition Still Require Action
Petition services are a great tool for bringing about change, but I think more needs to be done for a petition than simply signing it. Physical presence is a great show of support, so attending a rally may make more of an impression than a simple signature would. The defeats the purpose of digital petitions though.
I also think that petitions could benefit from a scale of importance or relevance for petitions. While most petitions fall under the category of politics or society, a further breakdown of petitions based on their topic and their importance could allow people to follow a more select group of petitions.