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By Jane Long on September 20th, 2011

I recently came across change.org, an online petition website. The site contains petitions covering issues from human trafficking to animal rights. Anyone can create a petition, and you can log in and "sign" the ones you support.

Online petitions are a cool idea. They're free, easy to set up, and a way to rally support for a cause that might not otherwise get a lot of attention.

Whether they're actually effective at enacting change is another question entirely. Even when the offense being protested is resolved, it's difficult to gauge to what extent the petition influenced the outcome.

Here's a lighthearted example: A few years ago, an online petition demanded that Warner Bros. release the 1990s rollerblading movie Airborne on DVD.

Bring Airborne To DVD: "I demand that this movie be released on dvd as soon as possible. It's not like people won't buy them. Trust me they will. I know plenty of people that love this movie especially skating fans. There are many films that have been released on dvd that are worse than this..."

Despite the poor rhetoric used in the petition, the movie is one of my all-time favorites, and without a VHS player to my name, I totally supported the cause. Much to my delight, Airborne eventually did come out on DVD, but I have a hard time believing that anyone took this petition seriously. Then again, who knows.

Snopes.com calls online petitions a form of "slacktivism,"  or a lazy attempt to feel like you're doing something without actually making a difference. (The "Post your bra color to raise awareness for breast cancer!" Facebook status campaign is one of the worst offenders these days.) Doubters say that signing an online petition can make a person feel like they've done something helpful--though it isn't--thus stopping them from more active involvement.

Advocates of online petitions argue that they're a great way to start getting people engaged. Proponents cite examples where petitions did make a marked difference, such as a petition to reunite a military member with her dog (which brought widespread attention and was eventually victorious), and a petition asking a Michigan judge to drop a bioterrorism charge against a man with HIV. (The petition was mentioned in court documents.)

If you're interested in creating or signing an online petition, check out change.org, thepetitionsite.org, or The White House's very own petition site, We The People. There may be potential to make a difference, but just remember: if you find a cause you're passionate about, don't stop there.

Have you ever created or signed an online petition?

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