On his Info Vegan blog, open-source information advocate Clay Johnson rails against online petitions and the advocacy groups behind them.

Most of the time, the organizers don’t follow up on the petition, some of the time the vendor has some kind of bug and they don’t end up being delivered. If and when they do go end up getting delivered, members don’t read them. There’s no possible way they could — according to the Congressional Management Foundation, the House of Representatives got 99,053,399 messages via the Internet in 2004. That’s 227,708.9 messages per member of Congress. If a member took an average of 30 seconds to thoughtfully read each email they received in 2004, it’d take them 79 days solely to read their mail from the Internet. For a member of the Senate it’s worse: 288 straight 24-hour days worth of constituent communications at 30 seconds a piece. Most people don’t spend that many hours awake in a year.

In short — sometimes the mail doesn’t even get there and when it does, it rarely gets read. So why do organizations tell you to write your members in the first place?

Because politicians and advocacy groups value your email address over your voice. It’s the great lie of online organizing: that your voice to Congress or your voice to whomever can make a difference. It can, it should, but not through them. Nearly every organization in Washington is focused on one thing — inventing new and interesting ways to get your email address. And they want your email address so that they can ask you for money.

Johnson admits that petitions can help political candidates who need e-mail addresses and money. He further says that claiming to have thousands of supporters is impressive. Plus, petitions can raise awareness. It’s all about what’s done with the names and sentiment, though, and, as Johnson points out, the opportunities are often lost.

Your thoughts? If enough people comment on this post, maybe I’ll start a petition to stop online petitions.

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