Back in July, Mark Pesce predicted increasing dust-ups between traditional companies and organizations versus self-organized “cause mobs” wielding social and mobile media tools to make change. His prediction, so far, has been right on the mark. As I write Swarms, a book about self-organized groups that mobilize for impact, I’m tracking the emergence of increasingly aggressive online communities; such examples point to a growing trend that intersects social advocacy and corporate communities. Many swarms continue to get stronger as they mobilize for causes. [The just-finished online EVERYWHERE campaign to fight cancer reported today that it raised a record $70,000 in 24 hours]. But what’s new is that swarms are now starting to take on businesses with increasing frequency, with organizers using their passionate crowds of “friends and followers” to help them force their well-funded adversaries to back down.

Here are some recent examples of the power-shift in the commercial space:

  • On October 2, Nestle was forced to drop its decision to source milk from a dairy owned by the wife of Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe, thanks to a Facebook organized campaign that protested Mugabe’s violent seizure of the operation from a white farmer. Nestle relented after several protest groups were set up on Facebook to boycott Nestle products; one flash mob listed more than 8,000 members. Kallie Kriel, the chief executive of AfriForum, a rights group which had called for a boycott of what she called Nestle’s “blood milk” told the Associated Press: “This shows the strength that civil society has; this action shows that civil society can use these tools to make sure justice prevails.”
  • Reacting to what they considered a homophobic column in the Daily Mail by writer Jan Moir, an online flash mob waged a high-profile protest campaign against the British tabloid, causing major firms such as Marks & Spencer to remove their ads from the Web page that carried Moir’s piece. The article questioned the circumstances leading to the death of Boyzone star Stephen Gately; more than 1,000 emails and calls alleging homophobia and inaccuracies in Moir’s article were filed with the Press Complaints Division, causing the Web site to crash. Protesters set up a Facebook page called, “The Daily Mail Should Retract Jan Moir’s Hateful, Homophobic Article” and listed the names and telephone numbers of the paper’s key advertisers. An article about the flap in the Guardian, a rival newspaper, quoted James Bromley, the Mail’s Online managing director, saying his decision to agree to remove the ads was made after the paper “saw the strong reaction.”
  • Last month, the makers of Monster, an energy drink, sent a cease and desist letter to Rock Art Brewery in Vermont, a small craft brewery with 7 employees. Rock Art calls one of its specialty beers “Vermonster” but the makers of Monster—the Corona, Calif.-based Hansen Beverage Co.—think it’s too similar in name to Monster, Hansen’s energy drink. Hansen is trying to force Rock Art to stop using the Vermonster name. But Rock Art’s owner, Matt Nadeau, is having none of it. Nadeau is using his company’s Web site, Facebook page, Twitter account and now a YouTube video to rally support for a boycott against Monster called “Rock Art Brewery vs. Corporate America.”  So far, so good: Nadeau’s Facebook group, the Vermonters and Craft Beer Drinkers Against Monster, has amassed more than 10,000 members. Twitter users have begun using the hashtags #boycottmonster and #monsterboycott to keep mobilizing on Twitter. According to a Mashable post by Adam Ostrow, Nadeau says he won’t quit until he gets Monster to back down: Nadeau says he has no money to fight Monster in court, so he’s pushing hard for a swarm boycott instead. Will it work? Nadeau says many Vermont store owners have joined Nadeau’s boycott: one, George Bergin, told the AP that he has taken Hansen and Monster products off his shelves and is telling customers why, even though Monster is the store’s best-selling energy drink.

There’s no doubt: consumers have always been able to organize. But thanks to the speed and reach of the Net, look for more such fast-fire boycotts going forward.
Many of these new groups have been getting results, but there’s another reason they’re catching on so quickly, says Sherri Grasmuck, a sociologist at Temple University. She says Facebook users tend to shape their online identities implicitly rather than explicitly. As in the offline world, the kinds of campaigns and groups Web users join, she says, reveal more about who they are than their dull “about me” pages.

For more on Swarms, see this earlier post on Cause Global, and another piece on “network weaving”— an expanding body of knowledge about how organizations, communities, regions, industries, marketers and geopolitics behave as networks of collaboration, learning and influence.

Got a swarm story you’d like to share? Let us hear from you and we’ll credit you for your contribution in a later post on the subject.

imageMarcia Stepanek is Founding Editor-in-Chief and President, News and Information, for Contribute Media, a New York-based magazine, Web site, and conference series about the new people and ideas of giving. She is the publisher of Cause Global, an acclaimed new blog about the use of digital media for social change. She also serves as moderator and producer of New Conversations for Change, Contribute’s forum series highlighting social entrepreneurs and new trends in philanthropy.