Sunday, May 01, 2005

Petitioning goes high-tech

Yet another something else on the Web for reporters to check -- your latest online petition.

One of the latest to go up at (as it describes itself " is a combination of a kind of optimisitic political hobby, and a forward-looking experiment in diffuse Internet democracy") is to free Christopher Pittman, the S.C. teenager convicted of killing his grandparents when he was 12. The "Zoloft defense" essentially claimed the anti-depressant put him in the state of mind to do it. Pittman's supporters are using a second site,, to get support for a bill that would eliminate mandatory sentencing for juveniles. (Pittman got 30 years.) most popular petitions right now deal with not stopping the filibuster, the Climate Stewardship Act, etc. Over at PetitionOnline, the most popular include two on "American Idol" -- one for a recount, one to boycott the show -- one to renew "Third Watch" and one to "Stop Ashlee Simpson." (OK, so maybe there is hope for democracy after all.)

Of course, as with everything, while organizers tout these as a way to easily marshal millions of signatures, they also dilute the impact so that politicians, business leaders, etc., can more easily brush it off as one more crackpot petition. It's the law of unintended consequences. (Petitiononline touts responses from CNN and Microsoft to petitions. Both seem like pretty standard stuff.)

Petitions either are delivered by e-mailing your target the link (wonder if that ever will get through the spam filters?) -- or printing them out and dropping them on the doorstep (with fee-based help, if you need it).

Both sites are searchable, so a search by your town, county or state name might be worthwhile from time to time to see what issues are boiling in some group's craw. (Here are searches for South Carolina on petitionsite and petitiononline.) Even better would be if these sites had a tagging system with a feed that could be set up to monitor certain terms.

Like periodically checking Yahoo Groups and Bloglines for keywords related to your area, this one probably ought to be on the "occasional check" calendar for reporters.


At 5/2/05, 11:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

We used an online petition service called Survey Monkey in Cheryl Harris' JOUR 304 class at USC this semester.

The goal of my survey was to find out whether or not it would be feasible to offer printed editions of The Gamecock five days a week instead of three.

I sent over 200 invitations via email to people in the USC community (students, faculty, staff, etc.), but only 15 actually responded.

At first I thought the problem was the SPAM filter, but I think the real issue was the topic itself. Many of my classmates conducted their surveys on alcohol and drug use on campus and received a lot more responses.

At 5/2/05, 11:34 PM, Blogger Doug said...

Survey Monkey's a little different; it's an online service for generating surveys and getting results. These petition sites are just places where you sign up electronically to support someone's issue. But wouldn't it be neat if Survey Monkey had a search service, too, so you could see what polls were available in your area (forgetting for a moment the questions surrounding validity of online polls)?

A 7.5% response rate? Heck, that's as good as some of these marketing polls we always seem to want to run. I use one in my seminars that purports to have surveyed "37 million people." Yeah, right.

At 5/3/05, 9:23 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, I realized after posting my comment that I called Survey Monkey a petition site instead of a survey service. My mistake, but the comments about response rates reminded me of my problems gathering up responses for my survey last semester.

I am familiar with the online petition sites, though. I was assigned to write an article in early 2003 for a newspaper in Sweden called Aftonbladet. The article itself was about an online petition to convince filmmaker Michael Moore to run for president in 2004.

Most of the signatures turned out to be bogus, and a lot of people used their space to insert jokes and insults at Moore.

I don't know how far along the petition sites have come since early 2003, but I'm sure that sort of thing must still be a problem. It would be so easy for someone to search out and harrass petitions that concern issues that they are against.


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