In November 1995, when the Republican-controlled 104th Congress threatened to shrink funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), Elizabeth Weinert and her roommate, both freshmen at the University of Northern Colorado, decided to do something about it. Weinert crafted an e-mail petition opposing the cuts and sent it out over the Internet, instructing people to sign it and pass it on and asking every 50th recipient to return it to either of them. More than three years later -- and long after the threat to CPB has dissipated -- the petition is still circulating. Now simply spam, the "Save NPR and PBS" petition is a rare case of a protest outliving its cause.
Ironically, the petition never reached its target. Soon after Weinert sent it, the effort spun out of control, generating too many responses for the pair to handle. "Everyone starts e-mailing you," says Weinert's roommate (who asked that her name not be used). "A month goes by, and you're completely overloaded by this." University officials were not pleased with the school's computer system being used to circulate what they considered junk e-mail, and say they received numerous complaints about the petition. Weinert ended up dropping out of school for unrelated reasons, leaving her roommate to deal with what she describes as a living nightmare. For the next two years, she responded to each petition-related e-mail (up to 400 a day), asking senders to stop forwarding it. "I've been trying to take responsibility and sort out the mess," she says. "It was not a smart thing to do."
Neither she nor Weinert ever sent a copy to members of Congress, and staffers at both of the congressional subcommittees involved in overseeing CPB funding say they don't recall receiving it. Even advocacy groups involved in the funding battle, such as People For the American Way and the Citizen's Committee for Public Broadcasting, didn't use the petition in their campaigns. (People For the American Way didn't even have Internet access at the time.)
Perhaps it doesn't matter. A study published in December 1998 by OMB Watch, a nonprofit research and advocacy group in Washington, D.C., shows that on Capitol Hill, e-mails receive far less attention than letters, calls, and personal visits. "For the most part, e-mail is considered junk," says Patrick Lemmon, the study's author. "Although the Internet has changed the way we communicate, we haven't found the best way to use it yet."
While some members of Congress, such as Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), go so far as to note on their Web sites that they can't handle e-mail, others simply sort it and delete all but constituent messages. Even then, members don't e-mail back. "Our policy," says Darren Pittman, a legislative correspondent for Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), "is to respond [with] snail mail, because e-mail is something you can't control."
That doesn't mean the Internet can't be an effective organizing tool. At least one group has figured out that the best use of online protesting is to take it offline.
Joan Blades and Wes Boyd, co-founders of Berkeley Systems, a California software company, started the Censure and Move On Web site (www.moveon.org) in September to oppose plans to impeach the president. The site is a nonpartisan online petition for those who believe that Congress should, as the name implies, censure Clinton and move on to other business.
Within the first month, the organization had amassed -- via e-mail -- 2,000 volunteers around the country to help drum up petitioners, field press calls, and serve as regional organizers. When it came time for Boyd and Blades to take their message to Congress, however, they chose the old-fashioned, tree-killing way: They printed out more than 20,000 pages of constituent e-mail and gave them to volunteers for hand-delivery to every member of the House.
Besides serving as a message clearinghouse, the Censure and Move On site also organized a telephone campaign. The week before the House impeachment debate was to begin, Move On e-mailed members a toll-free number that would patch callers through to the office of their representative. More than 200,000 people called the number, and an additional 50,000 called Congress on their own and e-mailed Censure and Move On to let them know.
But Boyd and Blades' real progress has been in getting petitioners to cough up something every politician pays attention to: $12 million in pledges to spend on the 2000 congressional campaigns. Though the money hasn't been collected, they intend to use their extensive e-mail list to prod voters into spending their pledges on the campaigns of favored candidates -- namely, anybody running against the 223 Republicans and 5 Democrats who voted for impeachment.