Facebook isn't the first company to be targeted by online swarms, nor will it be the last: cause-wired consumers are just starting to flex their digital organizing muscles. [Due to prevailing privacy concerns, almost two-thirds of Facebook users say they are considering leaving the site, according to the IT security firm, Sophos, with 16 percent of those surveyed already claiming to have boycotted the site.]
I've been tracking this trend and others for my upcoming book, Swarms, about the rise of self-organized groups online, which is due out later this year. What's new is that increasing numbers of self-organized pressure groups, collaborating digitally, are finding they they're able to wield more influence than ever -- changing how a particular airline treats its customers and employees to influencing how a financial services company runs its national charity contest. [There's even a swarm that got a San Francisco liquor store owner to install more eco-friendly lighting; once he did, the swarm brought him some $9,200 worth of extra business one Saturday afternoon.]
And that's just for starters. In the social enterprise sector so far this year, swarms temporarily sidelined the Chase Community Challenge contest, pushed Nestle into a nasty confrontation over its use of palm oil in its KitKat chocolate bars, and forced Pepsi's Refresh contest administrators into a quick apology for bending its own contest rules earlier this spring.
Will the recent swarms of rattled Facebook users be as successful in forcing change in the site's privacy policies? So far, so good: The Wall Street Journal is reporting that Facebook's swarms have become so riled that Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg is thinking about scaling back his push to get users to share more about themselves in public.
"Activists are starting to see the power that consumers have online (using social media) to put pressure on brands, and to hijack conversations that brands are attempting to have with consumers," Seventh Generation's Chris Miller told a Milken Global Conference panel I moderated last month on the rising power of swarms. Corporate public relations veteran Jack Leslie, the CEO of Weber Shandwick, agreed, adding that "the speed with which something can happen and the size of the damage that can be done (by swarms) is so much greater now ... that the whole name of the game (for companies on the receiving end) is not to push a message so much as to engage in conversations that lead to new opportunities." [Justmeans cofounder Kevin Long, also a panelist, agreed.]
Brent Schulkin, the founder of Carrotmob, a Berkeley, Calif.-based Web action group that has organized 60 consumer swarms from Helsinki to San Francisco in the past few years, says the most powerful swarms are those which push for a win-win for both companies and consumers. "Today, we all know that every company does stuff we don't like," Schulkin says. "Now, if companies say, 'We don't do anything bad,' nobody believes them. The Carrotmob premise is that every business can do something better."
Schulkin is forming a new nonprofit this summer to expand the reach of Carrotmobs to include national brands. Consumer swarms, he says, should "look at what companies can do to improve -- and then judge these companies by the level of their improvements, rewarding those which improve the most with their purchasing power. It's about win-win. It's kind of a reverse boycott."
What do you think? What swarms are you currently tracking and which swarms have you joined? Are you boycotting Facebook? Let us hear from you.
-- Marcia Stepanek