Starting last September, thousands of Americans young and old got up from their sofas and headed to various urban (and semi-urban) centers around the country as part of the Occupy Movement. They slept outdoors, risked arrest, learned twinkle-fingers and got visible to make their voices and displeasure with the current state of economic affairs heard. Some were tear gassed, some were beaten, many were arrested and all of them worked to redefine the conversations politicians (and the mainstream media) have about income inequality, taxation, social justice and law enforcement tactics.
In the mean time, millions of other people signed some online petitions to encourage other people to do everything from prosecute the killer of Trayvon Martin — which other people took to the streets and phones to demand — to ask a vodka company to rescind an offensive ad.
When I was in college, online petitions came in the form of long chain emails to which you added your name and then sent along to your friends. The names were pretty much always unverified and unverifiable and, if anyone even ever printed them out and sent them along to Congress (as I found out as a Congressional intern in graduate school), they were effectively ignored. Today’s online petitions have the same effect as those emails of days gone by: it is emotionally fulfilling to add your name, and moreso to take part in the feeling of being victorious on the occasions they work (though they rarely work on their own), but when it comes to convincing an elected official that you care enough about that issue to make a difference to her or him, that’s a different story.
What makes a difference to a politician? Not something in which a constituent’s total investment is 5 minutes. The tea party wasn’t effective at achieving its goals in 2009 and 2010 because its members signed online petitions against taxes and in favor of union-busting: they were effective because they showed up, walked door to door, sent letters and emails to their elected officials and voted. Convincing people to do that is harder than getting the quick click, and it can be less emotionally satisfying because it takes longer and more emotionally devastating when it’s ineffective — but when activists encourage people to indulge in the quick sugar rush of adding their name and email address to an online petition, they’re telling people that their voices have been heard, even when they haven’t.
Signing a petition is a great way to feel good about yourself for supporting a cause you feel is important — but in terms of changing minds, changing the conversation or just effecting change in a policy, it’s rare that a lawmaker is going to listen to an online petition over the people who are known to show up and vote. If signing a petition is the beginning and the end of your engagement on an issue, you’re not an activist. You’re just someone with a computer who’s let it be known that you’ll type your name into a web form but might not show up when the chips are down, the cops are out and the line at the voting station is longer than 5 minutes.
[Portrait Of Serious Business Woman Using Computer At Office on Shutterstock]