You're a regular visitor to Change.org, you sign every petition that comes your way, and you've even gone door-to-door collecting signatures for a pet cause. But does it work? Is it all coming to anything? How much change is a collection of signatures worth, anyway?
Well, there is no easy answer. Yes, petitions can work - they have brought results in the past, results that were specifically attributed (by the authority in question) to the influence of the petitions.
Do they always work? No. But that may be more the fault of the issue or the execution rather than the process. But because success is sometimes measured on a different timeline than that of the petition itself, their usefulness can be difficult to quantify - but that doesn't mean that they are useless.
Even if the petition doesn't achieve the intended result directly, at the end of the day, there are still thousands of people out there who are now aware of a previously unknown issue and may work toward a solution through other avenues.
There's nothing that big business and the government hate more than bad press - and they will move mountains if it looks like the tide of public opinion in turning against them. If presented with a sizable petition for a popular cause, they may certainly do absolutely nothing.
But if their doing nothing after an issue has been brought to their attention gets leaked to the press, it becomes a major news story and stock prices/reelection bids go into the toilet. Never underestimate the need those in power have to stay in power when it comes to forcing change.
This has traditionally been the sticking point for old-style paper petitions, but online petitions have a sneaky trick up their sleeves - email. Change.org, for example, sends an email to the target every single time someone new signs the petition.
So instead of being confronted with a stack of paper that could be easily thrown in the garbage, the target receives thousands upon thousands of emails over the course of several weeks, or however long the petition lasts. Clogging up an inbox garners way more attention than a thick envelope full of signatures, and is much more intimidating.
Critics of petitions say that signing a petition makes a person feel like they've "done something", thereby excusing them from further involvement. On one hand, that's true - most people who sign a petition will fail to take any further action for that particular cause - but that doesn't mean that they've done nothing.
By adding their signature to the thousands demanding change, even if that's all they do, they've used their voice and their Constitutionally given right to demand more from those in charge. It takes many individuals to make a crowd, and regardless of the signer's sincerity, he is a part of the awareness and change results from that petition.