Online petitions drive me bonkers.

Even as I say this, I feel the need to apologize, primarily because all of the people I know who are super into signing and passing around online petitions are really, really, really good people. It’s not that I don’t like supporting causes or that I’m an Internet skeptic/alarmist/paranoid or that I don’t believe in the power of the masses to ban together and speak loudly and effect change. In fact, I’m the opposite of those things. In fact, it is being a cause-supporting, Internet-nerd, power-to-the-people person, that makes me shudder at the appearance of online petitions in my inbox/FB page/wherever.

You see, they don’t mean anything. Anyone can sign them. Anyone can sign them twice. Anyone can move from the computer in their bedroom to the computer in their office to the computer at their friends’ houses and ta-DAH! One person just spoke for seven. It’s this fact that makes them worthless. Because a person receiving a petition is always going to look for a reason to call it invalid, and if its online, the receiver – evil doer though she may be – has a perfectly legitimate reason to roll her eyes, forward the email to her PR person and tell him to handle it. In all my research, and all my news-reading – which tends to be a lot – I can’t find a single case of an online petition being effective.

To be clear, the fact that people do meaningless things does not phase me at all. I don’t really care how many people play Farmville or write poetry and burn it or watch Clockwork Orange every Tuesday before bed; whatever people want to do with their time is totally cool by me. What I am bothered by is when the opportunity to do something that matters arises, inspires a person to take action, and then asks them to do something meaningless instead. Petitions should matter. Signatories should only sign petitions they actually believe in. That’s what gives a real, paper, walked-around petition its power. It represents the time and thought and dedication of many people. It takes no time or effort or consideration of consequence to sign an online petition. With millions of them in circulation, the entire concept of petitioning is weakened.

Another example of this are the “Support the Troops” magnets. You know what I’m talking about. I suppose there is some chance that someone somewhere at some time was selling these things to raise money to do something supportive for troops. Or autism, or brain transplants or whatever. I can tell you though, from examining packaging, from looking up companies, and from actually knowing someone who works for a company who designs them, all of these things that I’ve ever encountered only create money for people who sell stuff. And again, this is totally fine – unless you are actually interested in supporting some troops. Then you’re going to need a new idea.

The scary factor in all of this is what are we, collectively as a culture not doing because we’re doing these things to make us feel like we’re doing things. We’ve always been a society who volunteers and donates and marches and petitions. I don’t believe we’re in any danger of losing our drive to do good, but I am a little freaked out by what will happen to our output if we think a mouseclick or a magnet has made a difference.

OK. I’ll settle myself. (Count to ten…1…2…3…)

My point is: Don’t click something. Do something.

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