it’s the year 2040. all electoral campaigns are conducted on social media. there is no corporate funding, there are kickstarters instead. there are no rallies, just change dot org petitions. candidates give no speeches, they only post memes in an ever-devolving vortex of post-post-ironic internet anti-humor. no one votes, they retweet the memes and whichever candidate’s final shitpost garners the most shares becomes the leader of this virtuous nation.
And because I feel like it’s fitting, here’s a poem I love:
Par-dessus l'horizon aux collines brunies, Le soleil, cette fleur des splendeurs infinies, Se penchait sur la terre à l'heure du couchant ; Une humble marguerite, éclose au bord d'un champ, Sur un mur gris, croulant parmi l'avoine folle, Blanche épanouissait sa candide auréole ; Et la petite fleur, par-dessus le vieux mur, Regardait fixement, dans l'éternel azur, Le grand astre épanchant sa lumière immortelle. «Et, moi, j'ai des rayons aussi !» lui disait-elle.
Les Contemplations – Livre premier : Aurore, Victor Hugo, juillet 1836
Imagine I stole ten dollars from someone. I didn’t, but put yourself in that world for a second. Everyone except the person I stole it from is aware I took the money. You tell me that I need to make it right, fess up, and give the money back.
I, being an evil person in this particular alternate reality, say that I have considered your suggestion, but have decided to keep the ten dollars because I want it.
So you start getting other people to try to persuade me, and you tell them that if you can just get 15 people on board, I’ll give the money back for sure.
As a group, you all sit me down and say “look, it was wrong of you to take that money. Give it back to Kyle.” I’ve named the victim of theft Kyle because I’ve known and disliked several Kyles and I like to imagine them losing money.
Again, I respond: “No, I’m going to keep the money, because I want it.” Then I say goodbye and leave.
So you get fifty people, and you try it again.
My response: “Nope, don’t care. I’m planning to buy ten iced teas, so I am just going to keep the ten dollars.”
Now scroll back in time a little bit to the second confrontation, with the fifteen people. Instead of “we all want this,” what you say is:
“We all know you stole that money. We also know that you owe everyone here ten dollars. Either you give back Kyle’s money, or we all collect our debt at once. Is losing $150 in one go worth keeping the $10 you stole?”
Of course, I give the money back, because the other option had ceased its potential benefit to me.
Now let’s scroll back a little further to the first confrontation, with just you. Instead of saying “I think you should do this,” you say this:
“Fess up and give back the money, or I’m going to get the police involved.”
Naturally, I give back the money, because keeping it would be detrimental to me and my life.
And that’s essentially why so many people feel like a lot of the petitions on change.org and whitehouse.gov are useless. There’s no recourse. There’s no consequence for denying the petition.
You’ve essentially just sent a letter that says “pretty please” with 10,000 signatures to the person you’re petitioning, and if the petition doesn’t change the conditions under which their decision is made, they’re just going to stick with the decision they already made and throw your petition directly in the trash.
The truth is, a petition isn’t a magic scroll that transforms signatures into results. A petition is a letter with the intent to persuade someone to do something, and like all persuasive materials, if you don’t have an answer to “why should I listen to you,” it’s completely powerless no matter how many signatures are attached.
A petition with one signature can be successful if it makes a strong enough case, for example, “Fess up and give back the money, or I’m going to get the police involved.”
A petition with many signatures can be effective if the number of people lends power to the case. For example, a boycott is more effective the more people are involved, as is the threat to withdraw support from a political candidate.
A petition with way more signatures than necessary can and will fail if there is no real consequence involved. That’s the fifty people, and their case is “we want you to do it,” which, as we saw in the story, would simply make many people say that they have heard and disregarded this suggestion.
The truth is, you never “only need fifty more signatures.” The signature goals don’t actually mean anything. A petition that has 950 signatures won’t be thrown in the garbage because it’s 50 short of the goal, and a 1,050-signature petition might be thrown the garbage regardless, because no amount of signatures will force the person you’re petitioning to satisfy your requests if you’ve given them no incentive or consequence, especially if you promise nothing in response to the outcome of the petition.