Nike’s website allows visitors to create custom shoes bearing a word or slogan–a service Nike trumpets as being about freedom to choose and freedom to express who you are. Confronted with Nike’s celebration of freedom and their statement that if you want it done right, build it yourself, I could not help but think of the people in crowded factories in Asia and South America who actually build Nike shoes. As a challenge to Nike, I ordered a pair of shoes customized with the word “sweatshop.” Nike rejected my request, marking the beginning of a correspondence between me and the company [see box]. None of Nike’s messages addressed the company’s legendary labor abuses, and their avoidance of the issue created an impression even worse than an admission of guilt. In mid-January I forwarded the whole e-mail correspondence to a dozen friends, and since that time it has raced around the Internet, reaching millions of people, even though I did not participate at all in its further proliferation. The e-mail began to spread widely thanks to a collection of strangers, scattered around the world, who took up my battle with Nike. Nike’s adversary was an amorphous group of disgruntled consumers connected by a decentralized network of e-mail addresses. Although the press has presented my battle with Nike as a David versus Goliath parable, the real story is the battle between a company like Nike, with access to the mass media, and a network of citizens on the Internet who have only micromedia at their disposal.
Everyone knows about the power of mass media, especially Nike. Nike is primarily a brand; its main product is advertisements rather than shoes or clothing. By spending nearly a billion dollars a year, Nike gains access to all major media outlets. Nike broadcasts a message that equates its famous swoosh with freedom, revolution and personal exuberance. Of course, this image is sharply at odds with the oppressive conditions faced by Nike factory workers. Nike’s celebration of freedom never reached the ears of the Indonesian woman who had to trade sexual favors to get her job or the Mexican worker who was struck with a hammer by his angry manager. Both of these violations were reported earlier this year, and similarly graphic episodes have been discovered regularly over the past ten years. However, even with the benefit of these reports, activists have had trouble counteracting the lure of Nike’s slick TV ads and high-profile endorsements.
Micromedia has the potential to reach just as many people as mass media, especially in the emerging networked economy. Most e-mail forwards die before they are widely distributed, but if critical mass is attained, it is possible to reach millions of people without spending any money at all. Another benefit is that each person receives the e-mail from a friend, often with a personal recommendation such as “I thought you would like this,” or “This is really funny.” So the audience is preselected for its receptivity to the message. When a recipient does enjoy the message, he or she can begin the process again by reforwarding it. It takes so little effort for each person to pass the message to multiple recipients that an idea can almost seem to be spreading on its own, like a self-replicating virus.
Nike has the advantage when it comes to mass media, but activists may have the advantage with micromedia. I discovered this accidentally when I sent my Nike e-mails to a few friends. My small group of friends may be divided from everyone else in the world by only six degrees of separation, but until the large-scale adoption of the Internet, this did not have such dramatic consequences. I never expected my conversation with Nike to be so widely distributed; the e-mail began to proliferate without my participation. The only force propelling the message was the collective action of those who thought it was worth forwarding. Unions, church groups, activists, teachers, mothers, schoolchildren and members of the US armed forces sent me letters of support. This contradicts Nike’s claim that only fringe groups identify with anti-Nike sentiment. Rather, an expansive group of people from all walks of life are concerned about sweatshop labor and are dismayed by Nike’s brand hegemony.
But the Nike e-mails did not reach these people all at once. Like all micromedia, the Nike e-mails jumped haphazardly around a network defined by personal relationships. The first people to get the message were friends or friends of friends who tended to be left-leaning and interested in technology. At this point, I received responses from people like Johana Shull, a college student in California, who informed me that she posted the Nike e-mails to her sociology class discussion list to support their discussion of freedom of expression as it relates to pop culture. As the message spread, it began circulating among die-hard activists who saw it as supporting their life’s mission. The tone changed the day I got an urgent message from someone who called himself Biker-X. His query: “Please confirm if the entire Nike exchange took place for me. Inquiring activists want to know.” In the coming days the message would race through the anti-Nike, culture-jamming, activist community. At this point, I was getting twenty or thirty e-mails a day, mostly from the United States and Britain, and I assumed that the circulation had peaked.
Then, something interesting happened. The micromedia message began to work its way into the mass media. This transformation was helped along by postings on media startups Plastic.com and Slashdot.org, two sites that use an innovative publishing technique somewhere between micro- and mass media. These democratic sites blur the line between editors and readers, so that Internet buzz can be transformed into a hotly debated news item seen by thousands of people. Reporters from traditional media outlets noticed posts on these sites or received the e-mail forward directly from friends, with notes saying things like, “You should really do a story about this.” At first articles appeared in technology-focused and left-leaning publications like the San Jose Mercury News, Shey.net, Salon.com, the Village Voice and In These Times. But soon mainstays like Time, the BBC, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal and Business Week were covering the story. NBC’s Today show flew me to New York for an appearance on national television. In almost every case, the reporters noted that they discovered the story online or heard about it from a close friend. Fatigued by PR-driven pitches, journalists saw the Nike e-mails as an opportunity to discover a story for themselves.
As the mass-media attention grew, so did the circulation of the e-mail. I began receiving 500 messages a day, sent from Australia, Asia, Africa and South America. The majority were letters of support or messages, like the one from Katy Joyce, to verify whether I was a real person or just an urban myth. Those who assumed I was real started to request advice about politics, economics and the kind of shoes they should buy. I knew the message had spread well beyond my circle of friends when I was cc’d this message from a man named George Walden: “I get a kick out of these elitist, eggheads and their self-serving, selfrighteous ‘rain forest’ ethics and contrived secular pieties. Somebody should burn ‘sweatshop’ into this foolish c**ksucking faggot’s forehead with a cigarette.” On the other extreme, I also began to receive marriage proposals and correspondence that could be described as fan mail.
Thankfully, my e-mail volume is finally back down to fewer than a hundred messages a day, and the media blitz is tapering off. The exchange is working its way into sociology textbooks, viral marketing seminars, business-school cases and doctoral dissertations. My guess is that in the long run this episode will have a larger impact on how people think about media than how they think about Nike and sweatshop labor. This larger lesson suggests an exciting opportunity for activists. The dynamics of decentralized distribution systems and peer-to-peer networks are as counterintuitive as they are powerful. By understanding these dynamics, new forms of social protest become possible, with the potential to challenge some of the constellations of power traditionally supported by the mass media.