Still, those polled didn’t see a systematic trend toward greater responsiveness. Asked to assess how corporations deal with complaints, 28 percent said they considered companies more responsive than 10 or 15 years ago, 25 percent said less responsive, and 42 percent saw no change. Social-media users were somewhat more optimistic: 34 percent perceived greater responsiveness, compared with only 21 percent who perceived less; 41 percent saw no change.
But those polled displayed less confidence that the communications revolution is making corporations more responsive to public demands on issues broader their personal complaints: Just 23 percent of all adults (and 29 percent of regular social-media users) believe that consumers have more influence on major corporations than 10 or 15 years ago. Merkle was one of those who felt that ease of communication has provided consumers with more leverage to shape corporate decisions. “With all of the Twitter and Facebook [visibility], their reputations can be damaged very easily,” he says. “I think it has a lot of clout to get a corporation to acknowledge that there is a problem that needs to be corrected.” Ari Rubin, a securities trader in Los Angeles, agrees. “There’s a definite link between greater consumer participation and the shaping of corporate policy in a variety of areas,” he says. “There’s a much greater opportunity for consumers to have input on corporate behavior.”
However, the largest group (48 percent overall, 45 percent of social media users) sees no change in corporate responsiveness. About one-fourth of both the public overall and social-media users believe their influence has actually declined in recent years. Merritt, the Minnesota music professor, was one of many who considered the well-publicized examples of successful online uprisings, such as Bank of America’s retreat on debit-card fees, the exceptions. “For every time social media affects a corporate decision, you have to think of the thousands and thousands of times it’s not,” he says, “or it’s too complicated to become an issue on social media.”
The verdict is even gloomier about the impact of these new tools on government. Just 18 percent of adults feel that government agencies are more responsive than 10 or 15 years ago, compared with 30 percent who see them as less responsive, and 44 percent who see no change. Only 14 percent believe their influence over government decisions has increased over that period; 35 percent see less influence, and 45 percent perceive no change. In each case, the numbers are equally pessimistic for social-media users. Less than two-fifths say that government is responsive to complaints about negative experiences. Thomas Koch, a construction manager in Baltimore, expressed a common source of skepticism about the prospect of easier communication yielding more public influence over political decisions: “Politics is driven by money,” he said.
Still, in a summary question asking Americans to balance all of the effects of the communications revolution on the marketplace and politics, a 49 percent to 39 percent plurality said it had provided individuals more influence by allowing people “to quickly communicate and organize around common objectives.” Regular social-media users were slightly more encouraged than the population overall, as were respondents under 40.
Americans may not yet see evidence that the virtual community made possible through the Internet is forcing big institutions to genuinely respond more to their needs. But at a moment when so many Americans feel that the struggling economy has left them paddling alone, the opportunity to learn from, and sometimes join with, others online is becoming an important source of support.
William Friedman contributed
This article appears in the June 9, 2012, edition of National Journal.