EPetitions: Power to the People?

Twice, Apple has stared down the barrel of organized customer dissatisfaction and dissent given life through Internet-enabled technologies. The first involved the iPod's built-in battery and Apple's $255 mail-in replacement service—not what you want to hear when your iPod, which you paid $300 for 18 months ago, goes dead and you call into customer service. But that's exactly what the Neistat brothers were told, and what eventually sparked their creating an online short film that records their conversation with Apple's customer service, recounts their subsequent graffiti campaign, and has since received over one million page hits (www.ipodsdirtysecret.com).

The second potential PR slipup came during the weeks preceding Macworld, when disgruntled owners of dual USB iBooks gathered in protest. Their complaints all centered on a common problem, that of a faulty logic board; yet, some who called Apple about their disabled laptops were given the impression that their's was an isolated case. This led Brendan Carolan to start a petition at www. petitiononline.com/ibook123/ calling for Apple to "provide recourse to this problem by either extending the warranty on the logic boards to cover all purchasers of said machines, or by offering reasonable replacement options other than the current replacement logic board, which has been proven faulty." Over 1,700 malcontents have since signed it, and there are now rumblings of a class action lawsuit (www.blackcider.com ). Apple has yet to acknowledge that a problem even exists.

While these incidents are bound to tarnish the perception of Apple as a premium brand to some degree, a potentially more interesting issue has emerged: the role of the Internet in uniting geographically separate customers under a common ideology in an effort to affect corporate policy. The petition has long been a tool of grassroots organizations to raise awareness of and supporters for various issues. But these petitions were almost universally pen-on-paper. Now, you can create or sign one from the comfort of your desk—wherever it might be and wherever the petition may have originated. And while this has led to some potentially embarrassing situations for negligent corporations, "companies do want to hear what the public thinks," states John Blossom, president of Shore Communications. "Think of what IBM is doing with Web Fountain. Things like petitiononline.com are key fodder for mining public opinion."

But the point of petitions isn't improved market research, it's about empowering the singular voice of a group of individuals. "Public opinion is powerful when heard in volume," states Blossom. "Only when you get a voice en masse will the media hear it." Petitions also offer a way to filter out the riffraff that can be associated with artificial attempts to gauge public opinion. Blossom points to an example of a financial company that has open discussion boards related to stocks, but which draws a lot of ex-employees and people who got burned by bad stock tips, "these types of venues tend to attract malcontents," he explains. Sites like petitiononline.com attempt to avoid some of this by asking for specific information from the user about the complaint before allowing them to sign it. In the case of the iBook petition, this means that petitioners must include the model number of their laptop along with the number of failures it has suffered. (Though it remains to be seen if failsafes such as these are sufficient to ensure the accuracy of a digital petition.)

Can petitions really make a difference in corporate policy? Blossom says, "I think they already do, either explicitly or implicitly." At the same time he says, "I don't think this is going to be a Nader's Raiders...the tail can't wag the dog on this." He continues, "These forms provide an effective voice that can shape corporate actions."

While nothing has been heard from Apple as to what their reaction to the iBook petition will be, they have been responsive to public opinion in the past, like introducing a $99 battery replacement service for their iPod. Of course, that change may have had more to do with the introduction of the iPod Mini and its $249 price tag than the Neistat brothers' video. How will Apple choose to handle this latest snafu? They did not respond to my inquiries, so only time will tell. What I do know is that online petitions represent the latest way in which the Internet has replaced a tried-and-true grassroots method of raising public awareness with a model that has a broader scope, is easier on the feet, and couldn't be any simpler.