In 1995, two students at the University of Northern
Colorado circulated by e-mail a petition to rally people to protest government
cutbacks in PBS, National Public Radio and the arts. In order to ensure it
reached as many people as possible, it included the words, "Forward this to
everyone you know."
The idea was that the e-mail would then periodically make its way back to
the students, who would forward it to the proper authorities as an indication
of public interest in the issue.
Right idea. Wrong approach.
Six years later, that e-mail - in various forms - is still circulating on
the Internet. People still "sign" it by adding a name and hometown, and people
still forward it to everyone they know (or a close approximation). It matters
not that the information it contains is outdated, or that the addresses for
returning it to the two students no longer exist.
The addresses are gone because the response overwhelmed the two students'
in boxes and the university's mail servers, forcing officials to cancel the
accounts and reprimand the students. But despite repeated attempts to inform
people that the e-mail is no longer valid, including posting a note about it on
its Web site, the school still gets inquiries about it through other e-mail
addresses and phone calls.
"They had no idea what they were starting," Gary Hatch, the school's
assistant vice president for information technology, said of the students.
"Once it's out there, it doesn't die."
Those who wage the seemingly futile war to rid the Internet of such e-mails
have given a name to the practice of keeping such e-mails alive: They call it
"slacker activism," or "slacktivism" (the term preferred by slacker typists).
It's not that these e-mails don't intend to do good, the experts say. It's that
they go about it in a way that can too easily become utterly meaningless.
"People feel they've satisfied their need to do a good thing, when in
reality they haven't done a darned thing," said Barbara Mikkelson, who lives in
Agoura, Calif., and runs the Urban Legends Reference Pages at www.snopes.com,
a site that documents the various chain e-mails in circulation.
"My mom always said something about the road to hell, and best intentions."
Often some of the most fervent activists have been students, so perhaps
it's not surprising that many of these petitions seem to come from within the
academic community, said Patricia James, director of the Eugene M. Lang Center
for Social Responsibility at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania.
The problem, James said, is that the informality of the Net can make
rallying cries ineffective. "It's a good reminder, I think, to activists
everywhere," she said, "that activism requires relationship building, and
e-mail is not relationship building."
The University of Colorado's NPR/PBS e-mail has been around so long that
it's crossed the border into the land of urban legend, joining a host of
others. In one such case, the e-mail suggested that for every new person who
forwards the petition, the American Cancer Society would donate 3 cents toward
fighting the type of cancer from which one little girl was dying.
Never mind that the organization's primary function is to direct funds to
cancer research, or that it's impossible to perform such tracking.
Meanwhile, the organization's workers must spend time answering questions
about a phony e-mail rather than more important work. Online activists, while
quick to denounce such e-mails, say they fall into the category of hoaxes more
than a legitimate attempt to raise awareness.
Joann Schellenback, who works out of Manhattan and serves as national
spokeswoman for the Atlanta-based organization, said the group still gets calls
about the e-mail, though it's down from a few years ago when the Society was
bombarded with questions every day for months.
She said she fears that if people believe that forwarding an e-mail is a
form of donation, they won't make legitimate donations. Or, worse, upon
discovering the e-mail is false, they may conclude that the group is somehow
"They were moved and manipulated, and our name is attached to that
particular manipulation," Schellenback said. "They might be angry. They may
think it's tacky."
Meanwhile, many critics question the effectiveness of these types of
e-mails, even when they're legitimate and timely.
"It's easy to get people to sign a petition," said Rep. Peter King
(R-Seaford). But the best way to get King's attention, he said, is "to sit down
and compose a handwritten letter-that's still the most effective way." During
a recent weekend, King's office received 675 e-mails, a third of which were
form e-mails, which King says are just a person's signature over someone else's
But while King is critical, Baltej Kochar of San Diego argues that the
great number of people accessible through the Internet can be a strong tool in
getting a particular message across.
To that end, Kochar has created a site intended to ensure signatures are
collected and put to good use.
His Web site, www.BetterTomorrow.org, provides background information on
current issues and allows people to sign petitions by entering a name, state,
e-mail address and ZIP code. But instead of forwarding them by e-mail, Kochar
plans to add names and home states to a print-out of the petition that will be
sent to Washington, D.C., via the Postal Service.
While some petitions may seem to float around the Net aimlessly, Kochar,
30, said the information it holds may still provide a public service. Besides,
he said, who's to say it won't end up in the in-box of, say, the secretary of
"Ideally, a petition will both educate and result in a particular action,"
Kochar does acknowledge, however, that while the Internet is a powerful
communication tool, a petition printed on paper carries more weight than one
submitted electronically. While writing a letter may be ideal, most people
don't have the time, he said, and his site allows people to quickly sign a
petition in a centralized location with the assurance it will end up on a desk
And he and others argue that for every misguided e-petition or hoax, there
are countless other ways the Internet has furthered various causes.
Many involve merely visiting a Web page and clicking an icon. For example,
one of the most well-known is The Hunger Site (www.thehungersite.com), which
helps feed the hungry by donating a cup of food for every person who clicks on
the "donate free food" button. Donations are paid for by the site's sponsors,
and it attracts more than 220,000 people daily, according to the site.
(Seattle-based www.GreaterGood.com, which owns the site, was co-founded by
Other sites use the same "click to donate" approach. On Oct. 25,
Manhattan-based www.NFL.com said that, for every person who visits the "NFL For
Her" section of the site, the league would donate $5 per visit, up to $50,000,
to a foundation supporting breast cancer research.
Although only 10,000 page views were needed to trigger the maximum
donation, NFL.com had 1.75 million unique users on that day and 3 million "NFL
For Her" page views.
More recently, United Way Canada, on its "Click For United Way!" page
(www.ClickForUnitedWay.com), arranged for sponsors to donate $1.25 per click
from Feb. 12-14. In all, 232,975 people participated, and although the maximum
donation was reached, clickers were thanked and told, "By continuing to click,
you are...[d]emonstrating the power and attraction of this online event which
will help us to leverage even more commitments from sponsors for our next Click
The question some have raised is whether people use these "click to donate"
sites to replace charitable acts they would otherwise do, or to supplement
them. Perhaps it doesn't matter.
"If it is legitimate," said Theresa Lowe, who works at PR21, a Manhattan
public relations firm, "so what if it promotes laziness if it gets more people
aware of the cause."