By Eric Zorn

Dear friends, fellow travelers, ideological foes and assorted kooks: Knock it off with the e-mail petitions.

Those that aren't wholly bogus--the ever ricocheting "please don't tax the Internet!" and the "save public broadcasting!" petitions to name two--are wholly worthless.

The one most often in my in-box these days is the "Stop Ashcroft!" petition, which follows the standard format of this pestilential e-nomenon:

Appeal: "We believe that [former Sen. John Ashcroft's] political beliefs on such issues as a woman's right to choose, judicial authority and race are so far right of center that they are out of step with mainstream American beliefs. We ask the Senate to turn down his appointment to be attorney general."

Instruction: "Please copy and paste this message on to a new e-mail page. Then give yourself a number and sign your name on the bottom Every time the list reaches 100 print it out and mail it to ..."

Signatories: Number, name, hometown. Number, name, hometown ...

Now, it's possible that, for example, a woman named Kathryn Quirk living in Santa Fe is anti-Ashcroft, as the 66-name list appended to a recent version of this petition indicates. Directory-assistance operators had no such listing in Santa Fe, but that's hardly dispositive. Maybe the phone is not in Quirk's name. Maybe she's left town.

Maybe a friend added her name, knowing she'd approve. Maybe a prankster typed it in knowing she'd be horrified. Maybe a zealous stranger copied it off a church bulletin or a wanted poster. Without more research, I can't claim to have any idea or whether this petition was endorsed by 66 people or by one person 66 times.

But what if I hunted down the real Kathryn Quirk and confirmed the validity of this "signature"? All I'd know then is that she expended the tiniest measurable amount of energy--just above that necessary to emit an approving grunt--to register her endorsement of the anti-Ashcroft effort.

The proper response to that is "So what?" Which is roughly the response of Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee considering Ashcroft's nomination and a frequent recipient of Internet-generated petitions on a variety of subjects.

In an interview Friday, Durbin put such petitions way at the bottom of the importance rankings. "The most powerful form of communication from constituents is the face-to-face comment," Durbin said. "Then it's a personal letter or phone call. After that is a huge dropoff to preprinted postcards, and well below that is the paper petition."

Durbin said that earlier in his career, he would have his staff respond by letter to each name on petitions. "They'd often get angry and say they never signed such a thing," he said. "And when we'd show them the copy of their signature, they'd shrug and say, `Oh, I never read that. Some guy just asked me to sign it at the shopping mall.'"

Now well-meaning activists of all stripes are using a lobbying device with even less integrity. "There's no way to tell if the names on these e-mail petitions are valid," Durbin said. "They lack credibility with me."

As I'd hope. Even though I'm with the putative Ms. Quirk when it comes to Ashcroft, the last thing I'd want would be public officials paying deference to whichever side of an issue has the most industrious computer nerds.

The People for the American Way have issued excited news releases about the more than 130,000 "signatures" the organization has collected at opposeashcroft.com, where signatories must enter an address. All I can say is that this was just a small hurdle for me when I signed the petition as Kathryn Quirk and sent myself e-mail from KathrynQuirk@ericzorn.com asking me to join the cause.

A fellow cynic recently said, "Internet petitions aren't worth the paper they're not printed on." But they're actually worse than worthless. They lull those who care about an issue into a feeling of satisfaction that they have done something and spoken out, when in fact they have done squat and said nothing.

Delete those petitions. Respond to friends who send them with a note that says, hey, if you want to have an impact, pick up the phone or write a real letter in your own words to those running the show. Otherwise you're just clicking in the wind.