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Can Petition Tweets Change the World? An Quarterly Report

BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, September 30 2009

What has surprised Jim Gilliam most in the three months since he launched, the rather clever Twitter petition gizmo that, with a few clicks, creates a pivot point for tweet-based social action? Good question! And one I put to Gilliam, now that has 589 petitions and 16,000 tweet "signatures" under its belt. Firstly, says Gilliam, the extent of the public ardor over all things Twitter shocked him. I knew people liked Twitter, he says. "But I didn't really quite grasp how much people loved Twitter. There's this thing about Twitter that is just fundamentally different." Beyond that, Gilliam says that while politicians have been slow to engage with and react to drives (meaning those petitions to Barack Obama, Chuck Grassley, or Stephen Harper above might not move mountains anytime soon), he's been amazed by the ability of insanely targeted petitions, when tied to a particular moment, to get a response from organizations, individuals, and most especially businesses.

What makes possible, says Jim, is for anyone to pounce on an opportunity, no matter how small, without the run-up and vetting and committee meetings that traditional advocacy groups might have to churn through before they act. Progressive groups aplenty spotted the fundraising potential of South Carolina Republican Joe Wilson's "You lie!" outburst, but Gilliam himself had an petition up and running almost immediately -- some 1,200 signatures in the first hour and a half, said Gilliam -- and once someone discovered that Wilson's opponent was on ActBlue, a short link redirect channeled outrage into campaign resources. "The stuff that works best," says Gilliam, "is anything really, really fast. It gives a lot of advantage to individuals over organizations, because organizations like to plan campaigns. They'll come up with the right messaging, coordinate with other groups. It takes time." Gilliam deemed the Wilson petition a success after the congressman indeed apologized.

And it helps if there is a specific, and colorful, hook -- and something tangible to do in response to it. Says Gilliam, "This is the MoveOn model. Take a message object that is going to get people riled up. But that can happen now in a matter of minutes on Twitter. If the first thing that people can tweet about isn't just the story, but the action that can be taken, that has a lot of potential." Beyond the Joe Wilson affair, though,'s adoption and adaptation has proven most successful where the target of the petition is an organization, a company, or any other party that is worried about its reputation and is responsive to a wide swath of the population -- rather than a politician who is going to worry most about his or her particular constituents (and funders, naturally).

The Google Maps team, for example, responded within hours to a petition from @sorintudor of Bucharest for the team to "put Romania properly on Google Maps," a reaction against the fact that the fairly significant eastern European country's presence in Google Map-land consisted of little more than a few major roads. (An feature: a petition is marked with the number of followers of the petition's starter, so the Romania petition reads "sorintudor from Bucharest with 1,015 followers started this" -- a marker for the petition target of just how big a posse your petitioner potentially has around him or her.) The maps team responded, on Twitter, that they were looking into the issue. Two months later, they tweeted an update: "Thx @sorintudor for petition We’ve added better imagery for Romania & opened it for editing on Google Map Maker." To close the loop, the site is updated with details on such successful petition drives.

Then there was an petition aimed at the concert host Live Nation against Buju Banton, an entertainer in the habit of singing about the merits of killing gay people. Was a factor? Difficult to tell without a response from the company, but either way, the goal was met. Live Nation cancelled Banton's concerts.

And while an anti-Banton protest could bubble up -- and, in fact, has bubbled up -- to the level of traditional advocacy group organizing, where might particularly shine is in conflicts where nothing particularly egregious has happened. Think of it as small-scale watchdogging, or free focus grouping. "It can be very specific," says Gilliam. Duke's Pi Kappa Phi chapter, for example, petitioned the university for dedicated house on campus. And for a business, might just be an invaluable chance to tap into the deepest desires of customers, ones they might only feel comfortable expressing within Twitter's accepting confines. One @bhschenker of Arlington, Virginia (whom I should admit is, coincidentally, a friend) is petitioning Chik-fil-a to stay open on Sundays -- for reasons that might present the company with a new marketing opportunity. "I think a perfect day would consist of your nuggets and some good-ole American football," reads the Chik-fil-a petition, "but I’m not able to experience this." No word yet from the company if it will make his nugget-and-football dreams come true.

And the fact that an target's response, or lack there of, is indeed broadcast on the site creates an interesting transparency. In one case, says Gilliam, a PETA petition against Pizza Hut for sponsorship of Ringling Brothers circus prompted a response from the company saying that the backing was a local franchise's doing, and the circus had finished anyway -- not an update that PETA would necessarily blast out to its email list, but an educational development nonetheless. (For those who are using to just plant a flag on a topic and rally opinion around it, Gilliam has in the works Retweets, a tool for tracking the momentum behind an idea. Gilliam says Retweets should launch in the next few weeks.)

Gilliam looks at the way businesses and organizations are keyed into and says, "contrast that with politicians." Petitions targeted against elected officials in particular, he admits, have gotten very little response. Part of the challenge is that politicians are still, mostly, using Twitter as an extension of broadcast-style messaging. I suggest to Gilliam that a powerful factor is that in many cases, a politicians doesn't, frankly, care what someone has to tweet about them unless the tweeter is a potential (a) voter, or (b) funder. Gilliam agrees, and lets me know that he'll soon be launching GovLuv, a project that will use what Twitter knows about location to organize political conversations that have an all-important geographic component -- creating the change that politicians will be motivated to have conversations with Twitter as the medium.

That, after all, is Gilliam's goal, with to help people shape their world by making their collective wants, needs, and desires known. "Twitter is fundamentally two-way," says Gilliam. "This isn't just 'create a petition, deliver it.' This is more like a conversation -- but it's a conversation where one side can say that there a lot of other people who care about this."