by Chris Tobias
When Jeff and I founded Take Back the Sky in September of 2012, we wanted to develop a multi-faceted strategy for convincing SpaceX to name their first manned Dragon space capsule Serenity. We knew that at the heart of our campaign would be good, old-fashioned, pen-and-paper letter writing. After all, a hand-written letter still has a more profound effect on its reader than a message that’s delivered by any electronic means, and the letter writing campaign that convinced NASA to name their first space shuttle Enterprise is the stuff of legend. We were also well aware, however, that, in the 21st century, any successful campaign has to be versatile and include the internet and social media, especially one that targets a specific demographic that would be classified as belonging to “geek” culture. That’s precisely the reason why you’re able to read this blog post today, and it’s also why you can visit our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. It’s also why we decided to take advantage of another trend that has gained all kinds of momentum in the internet age and set up an online petition.
There are a lot of advantages to having an online petition. One of the biggest is that it is accessible to people all around the world, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Another is that people who sign the petition can tell people about it online, so word of our petition, and of what Take Back the Sky is trying to accomplish, can spread very quickly to all corners of the ‘verse. And of course, one of the biggest advantages is that it doesn’t cost anything to keep the petition up and running or to deliver it to the people who will help it grow. (That’s important when a movement is being organized and funded by a couple of Browncoats who are trying to do the impossible in their spare time!)
As someone who has signed a lot of online petitions in his day (mostly for space, environmental and animal rights causes), I was well acquainted with how quickly they can accumulate signatures, and I was convinced that the signature total on ours was destined to climb swiftly as word spread among the various Browncoats groups around the globe. After nearly three years, I finally have to admit with reluctance and disappointment that this simply hasn’t been the case. As of this posting, our online petition sits at just 2,243 signatures. By way of comparison, in 2013 a petition to the White House to spend US tax dollars to begin construction of a Death Star by 2016 managed to amass 34,435 signatures, and as of this writing a 2014 petition to the White House to force the deportation of Justin Bieber to Canada has already collected 273,968 signatures! There has to be a reason (or reasons) why a petition to convince a company with a history of giving its vehicles iconic pop-culture names to christen a spacecraft after a ship from a series/movie with a fan base as passionate as Firefly’s and Serenity’s can’t seem to gain any real momentum.
“What you plan and what takes place ain’t ever exactly been similar.”
In retrospect, I believe I have to take a good deal of the responsibility for the online petition’s struggle to break atmo. When Jeff and I founded Take Back the Sky nearly three years ago, we were under the impression that NASA’s Commercial Crew Project would progress faster than it actually has, and we honestly thought there was a possibility that SpaceX could launch their manned Dragon as early as 2015. It was for that reason that we felt it was paramount that we establish an online presence as quickly as possible. Jeff concentrated his efforts on establishing this blog and creating a Facebook page. I took on the responsibility of setting up a Twitter account and creating an online petition.
Because we felt time was of the essence, I wanted to get the petition started as quickly as I could. In order to do that, I went to a petition site that had a high profile, believing that it would help us reach the greatest audience in the shortest amount of time. I chose MoveOn.org petitions, not realizing that this particular site’s parent organization had already had a reputation for generating controversy since well before Take Back the Sky was founded. While MoveOn.org has done its best to emerge from the shadow its controversial past, I have received feedback from some individuals who have indicated that they are unwilling to sign our petition because they do not want to receive e-mail messages from MoveOn.org (even though those who sign do have the option to unsubscribe from the e-mail list). Had I known there was even the slightest possibility that the site that I chose without much forethought would make anyone uncomfortable, I almost certainly would have chosen another to host our online petition, and I can’t help but think that this may have played a role in our petition’s sub-par performance so far– though in all fairness, it certainly hasn’t helped that the site itself has not received a major update since before the advent of smartphones (and it shows).
For the record, let me state very clearly that my choice of MoveOn.org as the host of our online petition was completely random, even if it was somewhat naive, and that the political views of MoveOn.org do not necessarily reflect those of Jeff or myself. Take Back the Sky was founded as an apolitical movement that only concerns itself with convincing SpaceX to name its first manned spaceship Serenity, and in true Browncoat fashion, we consider our campaign to be independent of any particular political influence. We have always been very honest, both on the petition itself and when presenting it to potential signees at cons, about the fact that signing it will put you on MoveOn.org’s mailing list, but it is very easy to rectify this, and I can personally attest to the fact that if you follow the procedure to unsubscribe you will be dropped from the list and will no longer receive their e-mails. I certainly hope that you don’t refrain from signing our petition, or encouraging others to do so, just because I initially failed to do my homework.
“Ain’t much good with words…don’t have much use for them myself…”
Another theory I have as to why our online petition is averaging a little less than 1,000 signatures a year is that the wording of the petition itself may seem outdated to the average reader. Because the text of the petition says that SpaceX’s manned Dragon “… is tentatively scheduled for launch in 2015…” some people may read the petition and erroneously conclude that it is obsolete. I wish there were some way to edit the text, or at least attach an addendum to clarify that the launch that was once projected for 2015 is now on track to occur in 2017. That said, I understand why I can’t. After all, it wouldn’t exactly be fair to change the wording of a petition after a couple thousand people have already signed it, even if such a change were to have no effect on the spirit of the petition itself. Rest assured, though, that the petition is still active, and its message is still very current.
“You can’t stop the signal… Everything goes somewhere and I go everywhere.”
Although our petition hasn’t exactly “gone for hard-burn” the way we hoped it would, there are nonetheless ways in which it has had a very positive effect on our campaign.
As expected, it has had worldwide reach. I have personally read every signature on the petition, and have found names from every continent except Antarctica. Many of the messages that accompany the signatures are very well-written and were obviously very thoughtfully crafted, and some of them are even downright inspiring. There are also a few messages I couldn’t read– because they weren’t written in either of the two languages I understand! It never ceases to amaze me how the name Serenity can mean so many different things to so many different people in so many different parts of the world. Of course, that’s all the more reason why it would be the perfect name for the next manned American spaceship!
And as disappointing as the petition’s performance has been online, that’s how much of a hit it has been whenever we’ve made appearances at cons! I can’t tell you how many times people have approached our table at a con, signed the petition and then proceeded to tell us what a great idea they think it is and how they can’t believe they hadn’t heard of our campaign before.
The really great thing about the fan response at cons is that it hasn’t been limited to Browncoats. It’s no surprise that fans of Joss Whedon in general, and Firefly and Serenity in particular, have been very enthusiastic in their support of the petition, but we’ve also found that it is very well received in the Steampunk community and among fans of science-fiction, comics and anime. Many of these fans stay at our table to talk to us after signing, and it’s always exciting to hear them express a passion not only for the name Serenity, but also for an American space program that is being rejuvenated in part through its collaboration with private space companies like SpaceX. (On a personal note, one of my favorite things about promoting the petition at cons is tweeting pictures of those who stop by to sign in costume– along with tweets that make references to their characters.)
So far we have brought our petition to comics and science-fiction conventions in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Morgantown, Atlanta and Orlando, and in each city we’ve averaged a couple hundred signatures a day. What’s more, many of the people who sign our petitions at these cons also express an interest in participating in our “Leaf on the Wind” campaign and/or writing a letter to Elon Musk asking him to name SpaceX’s first crewed Dragon Serenity. That’s precisely the kind of response we hoped for when we created it.
“Make the signal go further.”
So, what can we do to make our online petition have more of an impact? What can we do to give it the signal boost it needs to grow steadily until it has the kind of numbers that will make Elon Musk and SpaceX stand up and take notice?
Facebook and Twitter have been helpful, and we’re grateful to everyone who has already promoted our petition through those social media, but as we have pointed out in our panels at cons in the past, when someone “likes” or “favorites” the petition online, that doesn’t really make a difference. The only way to effectively promote the petition online is to sign it and forward it to friends, or to Browncoats groups or other fan groups that are likely to be sympathetic to the cause.
Of course, those who really want to help it grow could always organize their own petition drives at local events that celebrate science or geek culture. There is no secret password for the online petition, and there’s nothing exclusive about what we do when we promote it at cons. All you really need is a hard copy of the petition’s text (which can be copied from the site itself) and some sheets (or a blank tablet) on which you can collect signatures, zip codes and e-mail addresses (the three pieces of personal information that are required by MoveOn.org). In fact, we still provide a shiny version you can download yourself here. Once the signatures are collected, all that remains is to take them home at the end of the day and enter them in one by one online. We would remind anyone who thinks they may want to do this, however, that it is very important that any hard copy of the petition includes a disclaimer that anyone who signs will be added to MoveOn.org’s mailing list, though it is possible to unsubscribe at any time. If this sounds like your kind of misbehavior and you want to help, but still aren’t sure how to go about it, drop us a line and we’ll be glad to walk you through it.
And finally, we welcome your input as to what we can do to boost the signal of our online petition:
- Should we seriously consider another petition site, like Change.org, for example, even though we already have over 2,000 signatures at the one we’re already using? (Unfortunately, switching host sites means starting over. There is no way to transfer the petition we already have.)
- Are there other social media platforms we should consider exploring?
- Do you know someone willing to work with us towards securing a table or booth at San Diego Comic-Con next summer? (Or, do you even maybe know a guy who knows a guy?) It would be really shiny to have a table there, especially since SpaceX already does. Heck, we could even drop the letters off in person so long as we’re in the neighborhood.
If you have any ideas, please send us a wave and let us know… but only after you’ve signed the petition yourself and told ten of your closest friends to do the same!
Until next time… peace, love and rockets.