Hollering into Cyberspace

Recently, cyber house-pet owners got miffed enough at Care2.com for allowing just anyone to vote down their pets in an online beauty contest that they started an Internet petition at the Petition Site. More than 300 people signed the petition to pressure the company to lighten up on the animals.

"We, the undersigned, are unhappy with the number rating system for the pretty pets and wish to see a different and more friendly system in place," the petition stated. Its author suggested that troublemakers were abusing the site's public accessibility to vote down people's pets.

"Some people rate all pets a 1-and-lower score intentionally for their amusement. This has created conflict and more anger," complained petition author Kim Grimes in a related chatroom posting earlier this year. But despite the petition's popularity, Care2 hasn't changed its rating system.

Color of Money

Meet the Petition Site's mastermind, the very personable Randy Paynter. In a photo on his office wall, Paynter sticks out like any American tourist would, posing fully dressed with a bunch of nearly naked fellas from New Guinea. The picture commemorates the trip he took to Indonesia a few years back. He went there with the mission to find a piece of the natural world that he could turn profitable.

Paynter's nebulous grail included anything he could commercially manipulate without blatantly exploiting the indigenous people or the land, he said. He didn't find it there.

Following his trip, Paynter, a clean-cut, Boy Scout-looking man with strikingly blue eyes, went to business school. He emerged wielding a better idea of where to find his cash cow. Right here.

The U.S. of A., Paynter found, is rich with people who want to feel like they're chipping in for the environment and other good stuff. They just don't know how to take that first altruistic step.

With the Petition Site, Paynter's for-profit petition host service, he makes activism easy.

The Petition Site allows individuals and groups to set up petitions -- existing topics include stopping goat vivisection (a petition that confusingly targets the National Anti-Vivisection Society) and saving Taiwan's abandoned dogs. These petitions are different from the chain-letter ones emailed directly to people. After enough people stumble across a petition, and the campaign reaches its signature goal, the petition is sent to its target by either its sponsor or Paynter's crew, he says. The Petition Site can fax, mail or email it. The company can send the signed petition all at once or in spurts.

The Petition Site isn't unique. i-charity www.i-charity.net and e.thePeople are just a couple of the like sites also readily available on the Web. These sites' online petitions often target Congress or a department within government complaining about or advising on environmental and other sorts of issues. Some target individuals or businesses.

Internet surfers looking for Sea World, for example, might stumble upon the petition that reads, "Sea World needs larger killer whale tank." It only takes a few seconds to enter a name, email address, city and state, and click on "Add my signature!" And you get a nice note back thanking you "for signing: Sea World Needs Larger Killer Whale Tank." A few taps and clicks, and bam!, you've signed a petition. You're an activist.

The petition sites brag about their ability to revolutionize activism. (It's true that activism has needed a boost over the last several years, according to a 1995 article published by the American Political Science Association reporting a huge three-decade decline in political participation.) The site i-charity, for instance, claims to be "the best tool on the Internet" because it "appeals to people's psychology and allows you to collect more signatures than you would collect otherwise."

Green Lite

Signing and posting petitions on Paynter's site is free. The company makes its money from nonprofit do-gooder groups who hire it to advertise their campaigns to the 2 million people on its mailing list.

On-clickers have the option of "option in" to receive a host of newsletters from these agencies. Sometimes, the newsletter is already checked, so a petition signer would actually have to uncheck it or "opt out" to avoid receiving it. Additional revenue comes from selling enviro-friendly products and providing the occasional tech support on the side. Paynter declined to say how much the company takes in. He said, with 22 employees, his company breaks even.

The company donates 10 percent of its profits to charity, Paynter notes, thus, perhaps avoiding any ideological conflict inherent in trying to save the planet for a fee. That problem solved, Paynter says the real trick is making specific, perhaps radical, causes accessible to regular Joes and Jolenes.

"The biggest challenge in working with environmental organizations is not alienating the mainstream," Paynter says. The site is geared toward "light greens," he says. Those are people who generally don't dress up as giant endangered turtles and block world trade conventions at the risk of arrest and tear-gassing, but who are soft on certain causes.

The question is, what depth does this mouse-clicking sort of activism actually have? If the web as protest battleground stands apart in its power to attract lazy people, then perhaps when it comes to activists, more isn't better -- at least not in terms of accomplishing change through freedom of expression.

"Light greens, sounds like the undecided voter, the middle-of-the-road voter. That's who everybody wants," says Tom Price, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance journalist who focuses on political and technological interaction.

For petition peddlers, herding these undirected citizens is a point of pride. "The typical e.thePeople user is not disproportionately politically active," the petition site states on its webpage attempting to debunk "five myths of online activism."

"Thirty-six percent of those surveyed identified e.thePeople as their only method of communication with government officials," brags the site.

Hot Property

So, who are these people everybody wants so badly to back their causes? Lluisa Baques lent the most recent signature to i-charity's petition to "stop the media from glorifying murderers." Baques listed Japan for an address and provided a revealing web link along with a signature.

"Scientists from another planet created all life on Earth using DNA," imparts Baques' link. It goes on to describe the real E.T. "The extraterrestrial was about four feet in height, had long dark hair, olive skin and exuded harmony and humour."

Of course, online petition signers aren't always nuts. But the nature of distributing petitions on the web seems to invite problematic signatures (rather than entirely appropriate ones). Anyone can sign the ongoing "Wolf awareness week recognition" petition on Care2's site. But since it targets Ohio Gov. Bob Taft, the people who signed on from California, Connecticut, Florida, Indiana, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia may not mean much to Ohio's governor or sway his final decision whether or not to acknowledge wolf week, Oct. 14-21.

Paynter says the Petition Site has had some successes. He lists one popular petition by sea-creature avenger group Oceana as proof. The petition targeted the National Marine Fisheries Service, a branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in an effort to protect endangered sea turtles from getting trapped in fishing nets not meant for turtles.

"We found that people were very responsive," said Oceana webmaster Cheryl Contee. The Petition Site helped Oceana stir up 7,500 signatures for their turtle petition. "It's a way that people can easily show that they care about something without a lot of effort," she said.

Zero Effect

The problem with low-effort campaigns is that they are the exact opposite of what government officials look for in constituent feedback. In fact, in the case of the sea turtles, NOAA denies making any policy changes based directly on Oceana's petition campaign. "If we're receiving the same letter over and over again," said one of the fisheries department's head honchos Dr. Rebecca Lent, "it's not providing any new information."

In general, the Internet's power to rev up political interest among Americans has earned mixed reviews. Two years ago, C/Net online news reported in a Tech Trends blurb that "given the lack of interest, we have to say that bringing national politics online has been, so far, a spectacular failure."

On the other hand, "use of government Web sites is one of the fastest growing online activities," according to Congress Online Newsletter's April 2002 issue. The newsletter cites a recent Pew study showing that 62 percent of web surfers (42 million and 15 percent of Americans) have used government sites. Apparently, going directly to a government site is more effective than trying to access the government through a third party.

According to political consultants and congressional aides, congressmembers embrace a hierarchy of public-opinion formats. For constituents, that means it matters how -- not just if -- you tell your reps what you think. Politicians want to see that their constituents put effort into getting their opinions across. They want to hear a personal story, see something in handwriting or shake a hand

Howard Gantman, Sen. Dianne Feinstein's communications director, says any online petition "does get addressed." But a personal letter is "more meaningful" than a mass-produced one. "Some of the mass campaigns are triggered by groups to stress their one issue," Gantman says, rather than the various concerns of individuals.

"Emails that do not target members of Congress are a waste of cyberspace," says Brad Fitch, deputy director of the Congressional Management Foundation, a nonprofit nonpartisan Washington, D.C., group that counsels Congress on communicating with the public. "It's a little bit of a deception on the part of these sites when they say they're targeting the 107th Congress."

Fitch says he helps congressmembers set up filters that screen out mail not pertaining specifically to their jurisdiction, thus rendering generally addressed mail, email or faxes useless.

Ultimately, the fact that the pretty pets petition hasn't amounted to much in the way of results might be especially annoying for Grimes. Not just because it would take an already annoyed person to create a petition about her pet. But because Care2, the target of her petition, is the group that runs the Petition Site -- the web forum where Grimes created her petition hoping to make an impact on the company that gave her that very tool.

Allie Gottlieb is a staff writer at Metro, where this article originally appeared.

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