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Petitions, targets and deadlines

What is it that really makes you sign a petition?

I’ve given a lot of thought to this question today. Triggered by one particular petition that has seen an 11th hour surge of promotion through social networks. And I can’t help concluding that the nature of “deadlines” and “targets” does itself modify behaviour in these circumstances.

There’s a big difference between the phrasing: “sign this petition, it’s an incredibly good cause and by far the most appropriate way to address it”

and

“Person X has worked really hard to get this important issue heard. It’s only Y thousand signatures from success, with Z minutes to go.”

especially when you can get real-time updates of how Y and Z are racing each other to the wire. It’s a bit addictive like that, all this instant feedback.

NB. I am intentionally not referencing that precise petition here. To do so will take the argument into different territory than I am addressing: which is about mechanics and behaviours of mass, public, direct representation. You can obviously search it out if you choose, but I will give short shrift to comments that focus on it specifically.

So what is it that persuades someone to add their name to a petition? I can see a massive range of factors. It could be because: they believe it will make a difference, they’re angry, someone has asked them to, someone has told them to, everyone else is doing it, or maybe that they just want to see it “be a winner”. There are no absolute “good” and “bad” reasons. This is just how things are. That’s the nature of mass participation.

But it’s that last one that’s playing on my mind. The combination of target and deadline changes the dynamic. We start seeing “edge effects” at work. I’d say that something achieving 90% of its goal with 24 hours to spare can much more easily attract attention that something at 50% with three months to go. We like “the cause of the day”. (Indeed Twitter in particular now seems to be one long stream of them.)

And if that is true, then that target effectively shrinks slightly, as a result of this last-minute acceleration effect.

Is that a good thing? Has it been fully accounted for in the design of the system? What would happen if the “score” were kept masked (other than to say it exceeded a minimum threshold for consideration)? I’d be really interested to know.

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4 Responses

  1. John Nugent says:

    Hi Paul,

    Interesting question.

    Setting a target for a petition adds a gaming element that encourages more people to sign. Setting a deadline enables promotion to be more focused. Together, they make for a more successful campaign.

    The optimum time frame for a ‘successful’ petition is 6-12 weeks. It’s interesting that the Government petition website defaults to 12 months.

    We’re launching a new petition website soon that is designed for the UK and enables a flexible approach to timing and targets. Stay tuned!

  2. Ann Kempster says:

    I wondered when this would become an issue here…

    I lived in Oregon for quite a few years. Oregon is one of the states in the US that runs a lot of referendums. The public can get referendums on the ballot at elections by collecting signatures. On the face of it this sounds like a great idea. People go out in their communities and collect signatures because it’s a great/worth/important/necessary/etc idea. But then organisations got involved and it turned into a sort of chugging type thing where people were paid, PAID, per signature they collected. So gone is the worthiness/good idea/important thing and it becomes about money and power and influence. Which profoundly effects what type of issues come up for public vote and even WHAT is voted on as questions become more and more tricky and convoluted as more and more vested interests get involved…

  3. Tim Davies says:

    Hey Paul.

    Interesting question. Helen at the Oxford Internet Institute has been doing some work around this in their lab experiments: first thing I found of it written up at http://www.psa.ac.uk/2009/pps/Margetts.pdf but I believe there have been other experiments and write-ups too.

    Tim

  4. Loulouk says:

    I wonder if a similar thing to the church fundraising beanstalks could be done but with stepped increments displaying (you’ve achieved red status, amber status, green status) and a vague line where you are in relation to needing to reach the next level but perhaps masking the actual numbers.

    I don’t know. I hear the gaming aide of the argument but this what my first thought on reading the post before I read the comments and so this is a comment on the post disregarding the comments.

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