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Don't forward email petitions!

Email petitions do more harm than good. Please don't forward them, and for heaven's sake don't start them. Let me explain:

  1. You can't return email petitions even if you wanted to. Once someone starts an email petition their mailbox gets filled up with returned petitions immediately so anyone else trying to return another one gets a bounce message. Then the author's mail provider notices the ton of email hitting their server and they turn off the author's email address for breaking their rules about sending out chain letters. Internet providers have these rules because chain letters force them to deal with a swarm of incoming email which slows down their email service for all their other customers, and because of all the other reasons below.

    Since it's impossible to return signed email petitions, none of the reasons below are even necessary to make the point that you shouldn't forward them. There's certainly lots more wrong with email petitions, but given that a signed petition can't be returned, what more reason do you need?

  2. The author can't process the signatures. Even if you could get the signed petitions back to the author, the author won't have the skills to process the thousands of messages, clean up the data, and remove all the duplicates. I know this because doing so requires a fair bit of programming prowess and a good chunk of time, and anyone who has the necessary programming skills knows better than to send out petitions via email.

  3. Email petitions can't be recalled. Once an email petition starts, there's no way to stop it, and it keeps getting forwarded all over the planet for years after the issue it addresses has expired. In fact, most of the email petitions I receive are for issues that were dead years ago. 99% of petition authors don't bother to put any expiration date in their petitions, but even when a petition comes with an expiration date some genius will take it upon themselves to remove the date and then forward the petition again. Obviously, circulating a dead petition is just a waste of time. Read the Cautionary Tale article below for more on this.

  4. Email petitions don't work. Nobody in any position of authority is impressed by a 100% unverifiable list of names. To my knowledge, the number of victories that have been won by virtue of an email petition is zero.

  5. Real petitions have websites. A real petition has a website with current news about the issue in question, and a place to sign the petition on the web. Web petitions overcome all the problems of email petitions: Nobody's email server gets overloaded, the website doesn't die because of a dead email address, signers can get an assurance that the issue is still current or proof that it's expired, the signers' email addresses can be verified which increases credibility, and signers can optionally get a newsletter to keep apprised of the status of the issue.

Here's my summarized advice for dealing with email petitions.

  • Don't forward them.

  • Ignore all email petitions & chain letters about the following. These are all outdated, or contain bad return addresses, or were just unsubstantiated rumors to begin with:
    • NPR/PBS funding
    • Brazilian Rainforest
    • French Nuclear Testing
    • Congress supposedly wants to tax email or Internet access
    • Microsoft email test will bring you money
    • Some charitable organization somehow gets money donated when you forward the email (people actually believe this stuff?)

  • If you're certain that the petition is valid, then absolutely verify its validity yourself by writing to the author first. (That's the person who started the petition, not the person who forwarded it to you. This person's email address will be listed as the address to send petitions back to. Probably, that address will be dead by the time you see the petition. In the rare event that the email address is still good, and the rarer event that you receive a response, you may learn that the issue that petition addresses expired years ago, or was just an unsubstantiated rumor in the first place.) If the author's address isn't listed or you don't hear back, then absolutely don't forward it. Even if everything checks out, consider not forwarding it anyway -- because even if it works today, it may not work tomorrow -- or two, three, seven years from now, when the petition is still bouncing around the net.

  • Don't forward a petition which is supposed to be returned directly to the target of the petition (e.g., a petition that wants you to mail it back to, say, the White House). Clogging the recipient's email with thousands of messages is not likely to endear them to your cause. It also makes their incoming email-box useless, because they have to wade through gazillions of worthless petitions (most of which will contain the same names), preventing them from getting to the LEGITIMATE mail that people are trying to send them. Won't they just love you for that?

  • Be extra skeptical of petitions which have no expiration date.

  • Instead of starting an email petition, let people sign it on the web. (You can do this free at This way you retain control of the petition, since everyone will be going to the one, same place for petition info -- there won't be millions of copies of it flying around the net for years to come. You'll also be able to put up a notice when the issue you're addressing becomes obsolete. Your email plea will simply direct people to go to the website to sign. Make sure you include an expiration date in that email you send out.

Check out the article below for more. Happy webbing. :)

-- Michael Bluejay

P.S. Check out this humorous anti-chain letter.

P.P.S. Heidi Allen explains why email petitions mushroom out of control, and the authors are unable to process the signatures.

The Case of the Pointless Petition
from | Dateline: 05/27/98
I have a cautionary tale to share with you today.
Once upon a time -- back in 1995, to be exact -- two well-meaning but naive young students at the University of Northern Colorado decided to express their concern over cuts in federal funding for the arts by starting an email petition.
In their earnest Internet opus, they cited facts and figures concerning the costs of keeping the Public Broadcasting System and National Public Radio in business, raised the specter of Republican threats to cut funding for these programs, and asked recipients to "sign" by appending their names before forwarding the document off to everyone they know.
To make sure the petition got the attention it was due, they devised a very clever hook: it was launched with the provocative title, "SAVE SESAME STREET!"
The authors were savvy enough to know that no right-minded American citizen would stand idly by as Bert and Ernie were condemned to sleep with the fishes.
Unfortunately, several things were wrong with the whole idea:
First, no one in any position of authority takes email petitions seriously. Electronic signatures are meaningless, no matter how many hundreds of thousands are collected.
Second, Sesame Street was never in danger of cancellation, not even if PBS had been on its last legs. The petition was sent out under false pretenses.
Third, the University of Northern Colorado was not pleased to find its email system deluged with responses to the students' unauthorized mailing.
And finally, there was one little technical problem the students hadn't foreseen: there was no way to recall the petition once its purpose had been served.
Fast-forward to 1998, three years later. The students have long since been reprimanded for their ill-conceived actions (one even left the University, allegedly as a result of the fiasco). They and officials of the University have issued repeated pleas for mailings of the petition to halt. And, lo and behold, their misbegotten brainchild remains in wide, constant circulation to this very day, all across the Internet and around the world.
Chastened, humbled, repentant, one of the petition's authors issued this plea less than a year after its launch:
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 
To all receivers of this petition, 
It has come to our attention, due to the overwhelming support
of these programs, the movement to cut the funding for the
NEA, NPR, and PBS has been dropped. To repeat, thanks to your
support of these programs, the danger of losing these programs
has passed!! 
Unfortunately, the due date for this petition was deleted on
most or all of these copies and the petition is still
PETITION!!!***** We greatly apologize for any inconvienence
concerning this effort but MUST ASK FOR THE PETITIONS TO BE
DELETED!!! The overwhelming support we have received has kept
us going, but the fight has been won and we thank you all! 
The authors of the petition 
- - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Woe unto the authors of the petition; they had set a juggernaut into motion.
Various versions of the text remain enshrined on Websites everywhere. It is reposted frequently to Usenet forums and continues to be replicated daily by hundreds, perhaps thousands of well-meaning email recipients.
And every copy with its long list of names that finds its way home to the University of Northern Colorado's mail server is immediately and unceremoniously deleted.
So much for everyone's good deed of the day.
From the Information Services office of the University of Northern Colorado:
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Date: Wed, 21 Jan 1998 15:16:01 -0700 (MST) 
Subject: Re: Petition from univnorthco 
The petition you received from wein2688 concerning funding for
PBS was initiated over 2 years ago by 2 freshman here who had
good intentions but poor methodology. Electronic signatures
are virtually useless. 
One of the students, wein2688, left the school after 1
semester because the reaction to this "junk mail" was so
adverse. And for more than 2 years we have been trying to slay
this beast. It just refuses to die. Please help use to kill
this thing by NOT sending it to anyone anywhere Just delete
it. If you do want to help PBS, contact the local PBS station
or write to your congressman to voice your concerns. 
Dutch Mulhern 
Information Services 
University of Northern Colorado 

End of cautionary tale.