Online Organizing vs. Clay Johnson

Disclaimer: I am a huge fan of Clay Johnson. He’s an innovator and thought-leader, and he’s really really smart. This is a response to his recent blog post, “Online Petitions Are a Sham.”

Minnesota League of Women Voters Hold Mile Long Petition

Everyone (and by everyone, I mean a handful of people who I respect and admire) is talking about Clay Johnson’s recent declaration, “Online petitions are a sham.” Clay touches on a few points, which I’ve summarized below:

  • Online petitions are a sham because they don’t (and can’t) result in real world change.
  • Online petitions are just a cynical ploy to capture your email address.
  • Signatures you collect are not a real measurement of strength.
  • Don’t bother with online petitions or advocacy groups. Go it alone.

I’ve critiqued online petitions – and our obsession with big numbers – previously on this blog. But Clay’s screed begs rebuttal. Online petitions are a valuable tool. Yes, it’s true that in most cases, the petition you’re signing is not going to influence a decision-maker. But, so what? The petition isn’t meant to win the campaign – the petition is meant to build the campaign. Online and offline petitions help us win change by:

  • Identifying supporters. These people can then be cultivated to take higher level actions – including attending events, meeting with members of Congress, and even organizing in their communities.
  • Pulling in new people. Growing a movement is how you win campaigns. To pull in new people, you need to break through the noise. Campaigns like PCCC’s “Google is Evil” campaign attracts new supporters. Once you’ve got their attention, you can work in more information and nuance. As you build trust with your new list, you can begin to engage them on bigger – scarier – issues.
  • Building community. Online petitions demonstrate that you are not alone in caring about an issue. Photo petitions and Facebook petitions are two examples of how people connect with one another and find community around online activism. Community is powerful. Community changes people lives.
  • Winning campaigns. So what’s in it for you, the activist? You want to win, don’t you?

From collecting signatures during the Suffragists movement in 1910 to collecting online signatures to stop oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in 2006, the purpose of a petition has remain unchanged for more than a century. To build a campaign that wins.

Clay Johnson isn’t just dismissing online petitions, he’s suggesting that organizing is a waste of time. He concludes with a bold and ill-conceived piece of advice:

Skip the advocacy groups. Dismiss the petitions. There’s nothing in a call to action that can be considered honest. In the case of net neutrality, read what Google and Verizon said and make up your own mind. The intent of advocacy messaging isn’t to tell you the truth, it’s to get you to click a link. If you have something to say to Congress, gives you a method as does If you have something to say to Google, contact them yourself.

When you are powerless, you must organize. When your opponent has more money, more resources, more access to power,  you must organize. Online petitions and paper petitions are not a sham, they are a tool to win.


5 Responses

  1. I agree that they’re not a sham, but I do think the way email addresses are harvested is unethical. When signing a petition, the user is never shown an explicit opt-in to the list. There’s never a checkbox saying “Yes! I’d like to receive updates for this effort.”

    Instead, their signature is considered an opt-in to the list, which makes no logical sense to anyone but the organization collecting signatures.

    If advocacy groups were compelled by law to include that opt-in checkbox, do you think petitions would be as widely used as they are?

  2. Unethical? I think it’s unethical to steal or sell lists without user opt-in. It’s also unethical to harvest email addresses off of public websites and social networks. But to send a communication (including an update on the petition) to someone who signed your petition – how is that unethical?

    Most people are not compelled to sign-up for emails. They are compelled to take action about something they care about.

    And at this point, most people (including my mother!) realize that they petitions they sign are linked to email lists. And the same is true for paper petitions (inc. phone, mailing addresses).

  3. My point is — why not just include that opt-in checkbox?

    If online petitions weren’t really about acquiring that email address, why not let the signer decide up front if they want to continue to receive email from you? What’s more valuable? Their signature on a petition, or their email address in your database?

  4. The email address in your database! (See above) That’s precisely my point. Online petitions alone don’t win campaigns – movements win campaigns.

  5. The concept of when and how it’s ethical to collect email addresses for future mailings has evolved over the course of the Web, no doubt — but it has been trending clearly and firmly towards requiring explicit description and an opt-in workflow. There’s no excuse not to do that on an online petition.

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