Every day, I receive an email petition. I sign one maybe once a month, but I hardly ever follow up specifically on what happened to the particular petition I signed online. Today was the first time I tracked down the petitioning outcomes, or what the sites call “victories” and “more victories“. Surprisingly, I could not find any overall statistics regarding online petitioning after googling around for a while.
Do you remember the first petition you ever started? Or the first one you signed? (Or started and signed?) Because I do. I was 9 years old, being in the US a few years after immigrating from Taiwan, a country that had been under martial law up until a year before I left. I’m not sure where I learned about petitioning, most likely through a social studies class at school, but it was just so fascinating to me that you were able to have the opportunity to ask your school (the principal was probably the highest power to me at the time) to change anything you want. And so I made a petition and circulated it, requesting the school to continue a writing competition that they had canceled that year. It was not successful.
I now see online petitions every day. The first online petition site PetitionOnline was founded in 1999 (now it’s run by change.org). Sites such as signon.org, change.org, or care2.com, allow you to make petitions in a few clicks and a simple sentence or two. They also help direct your petitions to the right government target (you don’t even have to look it up yourself). “E-government petitions” are now apparently available in the US, UK, Australia, and Germany, but not for many other countries. It makes sense. Online petitioning is convenient, it can allow issues to spread quickly, and gather a large amount of signatures in a short period of time. It’s also a fast and effective way for government agencies to gauge public opinion. But with so many of them circulating online, have they become more or less powerful or effective as a paper petition? Is it just the new way of activism, now that we live in a technologically advanced age? If so, why has online petitioning seemingly not caught on anywhere in Asia, for example? In places like China, presenting paper petitions in front of government buildings is a reflection of the traditional form petitioning that had been around for thousands of years (see Zhao’s (2001) work on the Tiananmen Student Protests or Xi Chen (2012) on the history of petitioning in China). This imitation of the traditional petition format is the preferred method of many activists since it is a culturally accepted form of collective action (yes, there cannot be open forms of online petitioning due to government restrictions but email petitioning for example is not used either). In Taiwan, you also often see activists spreading out a long petition scroll in public and having passerbyers sign. They also think such a presentation (in scroll form) is more traditional and powerful. It’s interesting, that this seems to be grounded in the respective political cultures of different places. Have paper petitions largely disappeared from everyday life in the US? Have they been replaced by online petitions? What do you think? Has the meaning of petitioning changed as it shifts from paper petitioning to online petitioning?