Jan 19, 2012
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”
“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.