Online petitions got off to a very rough start when the Internet went mainstream back in the early 1990s. You may remember one of those early efforts, if you have been on the Internet as long as I have: it was the 1990s, and you got an email written by someone at Brandeis University who wanted to help the women in Afghanistan suffering under the warlords and the Taliban. That email accurately told you about the situation for women in Afghanistan. But the email was inaccurate in suggesting that signing your name to the bottom and forwarding it to all your friends would have any impact on those in power in Afghanistan. The petition’s author was totally unprepared for the consequences of her email petition, and hadn’t thought through how her efforts would pressure any change on a country that had no means to receive her petition, let alone take it seriously. It was one of the earliest forms of Slacktivism or Slackervism – all sorts of people signed it, and I’m sure most of them did nothing else, like giving money to an NGO that was actually trying to help in Afghanistan, because, hey, they signed a petition!
I’ve always wondered what happened to that woman…
Online petitions have evolved since then. While some remain ineffective — just unverifiable names on an online document no one who matters will read — some do generate impact. Online petitions that generate impact have this in common:
- They are web-based. People sign them via the web, not email. That puts the petition in ONE place, and makes it easier to find online.
- Signers are required to use a verifiable email address (one that actually works), and to submit full names and full mailing addresses.
- Each time a supporter signs the petition, an email is automatically sent directly to the person or organization at the government or company being targeted, with the supporter’s full name, full mailing address and his or her message.
- Signers receive tools and information to help them talk about the issue via their other online activities, as well as their face-to-face, offline activities with family, friends and colleagues.
- Signers are encouraged to take offline action, and are given all the information they need to do this: to make phone calls, to hand write and mail letters through the post, and to contact their elected officials regarding the issue.
- The petition has momentum in the media; there are stories in newspapers, on TV, on the radio and in blogs about the issue, and at least some mention the petition drive.
Change.org credits its online petitions with a number of public relations victories on many different issues, including:
- After a 5 year old child in North Carolina was sold, raped and murdered at a Comfort Inn, a Change.org petition helped push Choice Hotels ti commit to take steps to protect children from sex trafficking.
- A Change.org petition helped pressure Michigan prosecutors to drop bioterrorism charges against an HIV-positive man.
- Il Vinaio, a restaurant in Arizona, agreed to stop selling lion meat burgers and made a donation to a local animal shelter after complaints from Change.org members
Here is more about How Change.org petitions work.