The world contains two types of people. There are the people who, when confronted with adversity, hang their heads, give up, and accept their lot in life. And then there are the people who do something. People like Dylan D., of Fort Worth, Texas, who, when he was recently confronted with adversity and disappointment, created a change.org petition: “Remake Game of Thrones Season 8 with competent writers.”
Over the last two weeks, more than 1.5 million people have signed Dylan D.’s petition. That’s about 12 percent of the total number of people who watched the finale of the HBO fantasy series on Sunday night. The petition has been translated into four languages — “Justicia para los fans,” one signatory wrote from Mexico City — and written about in hundreds of blog posts and articles across the internet. It’s even, through the media, reached the cast of the show itself: Sophie Turner, one of the show’s stars, called it and other similar petitions “disrespectful to the crew, and the writers, and the filmmakers.” Jacob Anderson, who played the mercenary eunuch Grey Worm, put it more bluntly. “That sucks,” he told TMZ.
It may suck for Grey Worm, but what else was Dylan D. supposed to do? The online petition is the way people now complain, agitate, organize, and vent — the defining form of politics for the social-media age. There’s a petition, at this point, for everything. If you want to bring back a favorite canceled television series, encourage lawmakers to pass legislation, or pressure large corporations to change their policies, there will be a petition for that. If you want to make Shrek the national bird, there’ll be a petition for that, too.
More than 5 million petitions have been created on Change.org, the largest clearinghouse for digital petitions, since it was founded in 2007, and 1,000 new petitions are started there every day. The popularity of online petitions is such that the White House has its own digital petition site, “We the People,” on which it pledges to respond to any petition that can reach 100,000 signatures in 30 days. Hundreds of petitions have reached that threshold, nearly all of which have occasioned an official response. (The Trump White House briefly took the site down, but it was put back online in 2018 with responses to some petitions.) The United Kingdom does the U.S. one better by promising to consider for debate in Parliament any petition on its official site that gets that many signatures. One petition calling for the U.K. to remain in the E.U. has already received 6 million signatures.
Why are digital petitions flowering across the internet? One obvious argument is that petitions are, essentially, built for social media. The two basic things you do with a petition, endorse it and share it with someone else, are the exact two things you do with a post on Facebook and Twitter — only, instead of a signature, a blue thumbs-up or a red heart. Signing and sharing a petition doesn’t just provide people with a minor sense of accomplishment; it allows them to demonstrate that accomplishment publicly, in the manner we’re all acculturated to on social media. How else would my followers know I’m a passionate political activist about making Shrek the national bird?
For the same set of reasons, petitions can be magnets for coverage in digital-media outlets, even if they are just low-hanging fruit for cynical digital publishers. If you know that any blog post with Game of Thrones in the headline will find readers, why not cover a petition concerning the show, even if it has no real likelihood of success? Or, to put it even more cynically, if you’d like to agitate readers into angry-sharing your articles, you’d be hard pressed to find a better ready-made store of divisive and passionate political issues than among online petitions.
But Change.org is funded in part through paying membership, not the kind of model you can build solely on slacktivist virtue-signaling and media cynicism. (It also funds itself by selling paid placement to petitioners on the site.) If you’re paying $5 a month (or more) to be a Change.org member, you likely have a commitment beyond how easy it is to click “sign this petition.” And often that commitment is more than anything about getting heard. “We often hear from members that they’re proud to financially support people like them to have a voice in a system that tends to listen to the wealthy and well-connected,” Jason Barnaby Maddock, deputy director of membership told me over email. “As Heath Ledger’s Joker once said, ‘It’s not about the money, it’s about sending a message,’” Dylan D. explained in an update. “And I think this message is one of frustration and disappointment at its core.”
This made sense to me. Inequality is increasing. The government and corporate bodies that structure the world feel increasingly powerful, alien, and unaccountable. The organizations through which most ordinary people once exerted political pressure — trade unions and political parties, to name two — are in decline; it’s hard to “vote with your wallet” in an age of increasing business concentration, when you have fewer and fewer choices. Our politics, meanwhile, is increasingly organized over social media: We encourage our peers to support candidates through tweets; we tell them to vote via Instagram Stories; we organize rallies and protests over Facebook. Is it any wonder that the online petition, the political form that fits most comfortably on social media, is often the best method people can come up with for making demands of the institutions that govern our lives?
And yes, I’m including HBO as one of those institutions. Unfortunately, the network, so far, has remained silent about Dylan D.’s petition. (Maybe executives are too busy sifting through the 457 other petitions on Change.org appealing directly to HBO or invoking it in some way?) But that reveals the limit of the petition as a political tool: If you’re powerful enough, you can ignore it. The only thing left for us at this point is to gather those 1.5 million people in the street, demanding a new season eight of Game of Thrones, and directly seize the means of fantasy-television production.