BBC News

First day 'is crucial for success of e-petitions'

By Ed Lowther
Political reporter, BBC News

image captionSaving badgers and punishing rioters: subjects to have exercised e-petitioners

Online petitions need to attract large numbers of signatures on their first day if they are to stand any chance of success, researchers have said.

In a forthcoming book, a research team from Oxford University will show that 99.9% of e-petitions fail to reach the 100,000 signatures needed to trigger the prospect of a Commons debate.

Nearly all e-petitions are doomed to become "digital dust", they write.

"After 24 hours, a petition's fate is virtually set," the team concludes.

Prof Helen Margetts, the director of the Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford, collaborated with a computer scientist and a physicist to analyse the vast amounts of data produced by e-petitioners.

'Attention decay'

The team has deployed automated scripts since 2009 to access the current e-petition site hourly, and its predecessor daily, logging the number of signatories associated with each petition at each visit.

The number of signatures accruing to each petition on the current site during the first 3,000 hours, or just over four months, after the moment it was submitted is plotted on the graph below (note the logarithmic scale on the vertical axis, which compresses higher numbers).

Three examples of petitions on the same subject have been highlighted to help illustrate the data.

Few e-petitions soar above tens of thousands of signatures (those depicted in yellow), while most languish in the doldrums (the dark mass of lines at the bottom of the graph).

"Any petition receiving 100,000 signatures after three months had obtained an average of 3,000 within the first 10 hours," the researchers write, in a chapter of a forthcoming book entitled Big Data and Collective Action.

The difficulty for budding campaigners, they explain, is that "collective attention decays very fast indeed".

Successful petitions are likely to have been launched, or at least bolstered, by extroverts with "larger than average online social networks", they suggest.

The top badger petition was submitted by Queen guitarist and animal rights campaigner Brian May.

If an e-petition gets 100,000 signatures, a parliamentary committee will consider whether it merits a Commons debate.

The committee is not obliged to provide debating time, but nearly all of the petitions which have so far reached this threshold have either been woven into a previously arranged Commons debate or been the subject of their own debate.

In September 2012, Commons Leader Andrew Lansley announced that all petitions surpassing a new threshold of 10,000 signatures would elicit a written response from the government.

Pop music

But the researchers found that just 0.7% of e-petitions reach even this lower threshold.

"Such a high failure rate illustrates... the low costs for initiating a petition," they said.

Once initiated, the fate of an e-petition might hinge on "how potential signatories... view the petition's likelihood of success", they continue.

image captionHelen Margetts collaborated with computer scientist Scott Hale (centre) and physicist Taha Yasseri (r)

"Some people will participate when very few other people have participated, some people will only participate when there are large numbers of other participants, and most people are somewhere in between."

The team liken the e-petitions system, where "people are more likely to sign up for those petitions with the highest numbers of other signatories" with "cultural markets, where people are more likely to prefer songs that large numbers of other people like".

The current e-petition scheme's predecessor, launched under the last Labour government, had a much lower threshold to prompt an official response.

Still, "94% failed to obtain even the modest 500 signatures required", the researchers write.

Further research is needed to determine how news of petitions spreads on social networking sites and what impact mentions in mainstream media have on the fate of a petition, they believe.

More on this story

  • E-petitions: Parliamentary debates must have 'dedicated slot'