The Internet alone wasn’t enough to foment the democratic hurly-burly we’re seeing now. Social media has been around in one form or another since 2002. Twitter now generates about 340 million tweets every day. If Facebook were a country, its population would be more than twice that of the United States. It’s not mere size that empowers consumers, however, but rather how we wield that power. How did Molly Katchpole bend Bank of America to her will? It wasn’t the online petition—those have been around for as long as the Web itself. No, it isn’t the tools, nor their ubiquity, but the fact that we learn how to use them to our greatest advantage. The technology behind the moving picture was available in the 1880s. Yet, nearly 30 years passed before D.W. Griffith thought to produce what we would recognize as a “movie.”
Consider, then, the lowly hashtag, the basic organizing principle that creates coherency out of those 340 million daily tweets. Add #BofA to your tweet, and thousands—sometimes millions—of people could very well read it. Leave it off, and it’s like a tree falling in a forest. The hashtag isn’t some newfangled technology; it’s a convention that evolved out of the way people used the new medium. Facebook provides a similar function. With a single click of the mouse, users can join a group or simply hit the “like” button and join a virtual town-hall protest. These actions show up in the news feeds that all of their friends can see. They transform every tweet into a broadcast.
This is how a movement builds in our new age: with an infinite capacity for amplification and lightning speed. Think of the U.S. Geological Survey, which uses Twitter to estimate the severity and breadth of an earthquake. Why? “People like to tweet after earthquakes,” USGS seismologist Paul Earle said when the agency launched the program in late 2009. The tweets, he noted, are faster and more comprehensive than the agency’s best instruments.
GOLIATH, MEET DAVID
Enter Molly Katchpole. Last fall, she was a lot like other recent college graduates—overworked, underpaid, feeling stressed. Four months out of Roger Williams University in Rhode Island, she had moved to Washington and found two low-paying jobs. She rented a basement apartment on Capitol Hill and tried to stay solvent. “I knew every expense—$625 for rent, $40 for my phone bill, $100 for utilities,” she recounted. She also knew that the grace period on her student loan was soon to expire, which would cost her another $500 a month.
So, money was already on Katchpole’s mind when she heard that Bank of America, where she kept her paltry savings, would start charging $5 a month to make purchases with a debit card. A bank spokeswoman explained blandly that “the economics of offering a debit card have changed.”
“I was angry,” Katchpole recalled. “Five dollars doesn’t sound like a lot of money, but when you’re counting every penny, it counts. And I guess I was fed up with banks. Taxpayers had just bailed them out. They’d posted record profits earlier that year. I was, like, ‘Enough.’ ”
Within minutes of learning about the new fee, Katchpole went to Change.org and started an online petition. Then she posted a link to the petition on Facebook and Twitter. Within days, it gathered some 10,000 signatures, but the bank refused to blink. So, Katchpole sent a tweet to ABC News reporter Matt Gutman, who filmed a segment about her. Other media outlets piled on. Within four weeks, the petition carried 300,000 signatures. On Nov. 1, after weeks of bad publicity and damage to its brand, Bank of America backed down. Change.org bragged on its home page, “We won!”
Verizon’s stint in the hell of social media began a few days after Christmas, when it announced a $2 “convenience charge” to pay a bill using a debit card. Katchpole struck again, using the same combination of Twitter, Facebook, and Change.org. This time, Goliath saw David coming and surrendered without a fight. Less than 24 hours after its announcement, Verizon rescinded the fee.
Verizon’s decision “had to break some sort of corporate world record,” said David Butler, the deputy director of Consumers Union. “And that was largely because of what they’d seen play out weeks before with B of A.” These two companies weren’t alone in suffering the outrage of an increasingly organized public. Angry consumers have recently waged similar campaigns against the organic cereal maker Kashi, Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart, the Gap, Target, and Apple-—as well as the memorably named beef product “pink slime.”
Netflix might have suffered the most. Last summer, a marketing executive for the movie-rental company issued a faux-friendly blog post that revealed plans to raise prices by nearly 60 percent and to end its popular combination of sending DVDs to your door and also letting you stream shows into your home. The reaction among Netflix’s 22 million customers was fast and furious—10,000 comments to the blog post the first day alone. Soon the ire spread on Facebook and via Twitter, where “Dear Netflix” became a “trending topic.” Every attempt to undo the damage made things worse. Netflix lost some 600,000 subscribers, although it has since gained them back; its stock price has plunged by nearly four-fifths.