Thursday, September 23, 1999

E-Mail Petitions

You’ve probably received one or more of these in the past.  You know the sort: some social evil is occurring (like the Religious Right trying to crack down on an airline that sponsored a gay event at some point, or Congress about to let the Post Office charge you for sending e-mail, or something like that), so someone starts an “e-mail petition.”  You are then to add your name (and sometimes your city) and then send it to everyone you know via e-mail.

What purpose does this serve, beyond sending lots of e-mail?

The early versions of these didn’t even give any way for the petition to get to the people it ostensibly needed to.  The petition would just somehow magically “appear” on the desk of the president of the airline, perhaps?  More recent versions have had provisions for every 25th or 50th signer to send the petition to some e-mail address, from which they will presumably be distilled and delivered to the right person.

Let’s think about this a moment.  Imagine that you get the petition and are #19 on the list.  You send it to 10 people.  They are all #20, and they send it to 10 people.  That’s 100 as #21, 1000 as #22,… and 1 million people each listed as #25, all of them dutifully mailing a copy of the petition to the requisite e-mail address (and to ten more friends).  I imagine that the receiving e-mail address would get rather swamped quite quickly.  (And indeed, if you’ve ever tried sending such an item in, you probably found that the e-mail address listed was defunct.)

Now imagine someone — even a computer program — trying to process hundreds of thousands of these e-mailed petitions, trying to extract names from which to compile a master list, in order to find out just how many people really did “sign”.  The way e-mailers warp these human-readable messages, with line wraps and “>” quoting and such, heck, a human would need to look at many of the items just to find the names.  Yeah. Hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of them.  I don’t think so.

Suppose, though, that a list of names was able to be extracted and the duplicates (more than 99% of the names, probably) removed.  What good does a list of names with no addresses attached do?  Anyone could have loaded the petition up with names pulled from a phone book; there is no way to check that any person on the list ever even saw the petition, much less wanted their name attached.  (Or heck, that they even exist!)  No, even if any of these petitions ever do get to a corporation, they are of no use to anyone there, and they will only get tossed out as unsolicited e-mail.

Do you really want to have an effect?  Trying visiting the company’s corporate website, find a contact address (e-mail or regular mail), and write an individual, original letter — even just a two-line note.  This is much more likely to have someone read it, and pay attention to it, than some alleged “petition” to which you can just blindly add your name, send on, and pretend that you have tried to make a difference.

Also consider visiting  Started in late 1998 as a reaction to the Clinton impeachment trial, this is a web site intended specifically for the electronic gathering of petitions.  It allows you to enter your name, e-mail address, and zip code, and an optional individual comment, and then a compiled petition with your name included only once (and thus effectively) can be sent to the right people and have an actual effect.

Updated on October 10, 2000

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