Transform or die: The petition is going through another radical transformation to adapt to our modern times, to stay relevant and useful for the future to come. Here’s what the petition of the future looks like.
The petition is dead. Long live the petition!
It will be of no surprise to anyone reading this that the landscape of campaigning constantly changes – along with how and why people choose to participate in the causes that matter most to them.
Often these changes are shaped by the technology and tools that organisers have ready access to. Not just that – campaigning is of course changed by shifts in attitude, geo-politics, society – even changed by the course of governments. Some of these changes take hundreds of years, and some can take just months or even weeks.
In truth, the nature of how campaigns unfold, and the most effective methods of campaigning, have to change with the times. And the humble petition, as a tool for campaigning, must change and evolve too. Change is a good thing.
For campaigners, this is an interesting period of time to live through as the rate of change is unlike any other period in human history, thanks to so many quick advances in technology.
The petition has always been a vital tool of campaigning throughout history
For centuries, the petition has been a vital tool for uniting the public, demonstrating support and being a useful piece of evidence and bargaining chip when confronting those in power to demand change.
The first documented use of petitions were made by slaves building pyramids in Ancient Egypt who petitioned for better working conditions. In pre-modern China, workers’ petitions were sent to the Court of Transmission to be read aloud to the emperor.
To older generations, the image that might come to mind would be a concerned student walking around their university campus, clipboard and pen in hand, collecting paper signatures from anyone who would listen (while some younger generations might have never seen a paper petition at all).
The paper petition, undisturbed for millenia, has seen a radical and dramatic transformation over the last 30 years. With the advent of the internet, petitions started to move online, and in the process captured much wider public support and attention from around the world.
The petition changed again with the growth in popularity of social media, allowing a petition to spread easily amongst friends and colleagues – perhaps even going ‘viral’ – spreading exponentially due to the controversial or compelling nature of the petition’s topic.
But is it the only way?
Petitions have always gone through peaks and troughs of public engagement and confidence – sometimes achieving great things with only a handful of signatures, and sometimes achieving nothing, despite having millions of supporters.
Now, with so many other tools at our disposal as campaigners, it feels like the time has come to re-examine our relationship with the petition and try to understand how it will be used in the future.
The global pandemic lead to an explosion in engagement in online petitions.
The pandemic lead to a dramatic peak in activism, both in the number of petitions created, and the number of petitions engaged with, for a few important reasons.
Firstly, people were rocked by an event that everyone could have an opinion on, and everyone had something to be outraged by.
Secondly, people were forced to be at home for long periods of time – and that means heavy amounts of screen time.
And with all of that outrage, social media and lots of spare time on our hands, that lead to a golden era of participation in campaigning. (And due to the sheer amount of misinformation spread, you’ll know that not all of it was good.)
The pros and cons of a petition in the post-pandemic age
Change is difficult. It requires massive effort and perseverance from a great many people.
Imagine how difficult the decision is to go on strike as a worker fighting for better working conditions. You’d be forgoing pay for yourself and your family, and the most likely outcome would be that everyone loses their job, including you. There would be a slim chance, if any, that working conditions would actually improve.
Compare that with signing a digital petition. The beauty of them is that they’re so damn easy to engage with. A few clicks and you’re done.
But critics of petitions would say that their supporters are merely engaging in ‘Clicktivism’ – participating in a cause without putting ‘skin in the game’ – without having to sacrifice or risk their time, money, skills or reputation to do so. Clicking (as it’s easy to do), and going no further – showing no further support and certainly not turning up to a picket line any time soon.
Critics would say that the modern day petition goes wide, but not deep.
And that, yes, it was impressive when the first petition reached 100,000 signatures, 500,000 signatures, 1 million signatures – but now the novelty of big numbers is wearing off – and besides, most of those million supporters probably have no conviction – floating voters who could easily be convinced otherwise.
Simply put, quantity without quality of engagement.
Petitions are still one of the most important tools in your belt – here’s how they’re changing for the better
While a few signatures on a piece of paper probably aren’t enough to force through serious change by themselves – petitions open the door to so many other opportunities.
For a supporter of a cause, a petition can be the gateway action – the invite to participate in a movement on a deeper level – to pave the way to later volunteer one’s skills, experience and time to help get to a resolution.
For the organiser, as well as the opportunity to reach and connect with more supporters sharing your same vision, a petition can open the door to a face-to-face conversation with those in charge. Sometimes, a handful of signatures are enough, and sometimes, many more supporters are needed.
At its core, a petition is simply a place for like-minded people to come together, express an interest in making positive change in the world, and to perform a simple action to show solidarity in the cause.
And in that regard, petitions will always be a useful tool.
The new petition – quantity and quality of engagement
It goes further than that: If we can offer those supporters other ways of getting involved in a moment – perhaps offering their time, skills, resources, network, or just promising to be there at the protest alongside everyone else – then we can provide not just quantity of interactions, but also quality of interaction too.
With quantity and quality of supporter engagement – with a great many people on your side, offering their support, skills, ideas, resources, networks, and more – we can start social justice movements that rock the foundations of society. All it takes is a good idea.