The Progressive car insurance company has found itself on the wrong side of the Internet.
Matt Fisher, the brother of a former Progressive customer killed in a 2010 car accident, recently decided to publicize the company’s fight to avoid paying a $75,000 insurance claim to his family. Adding insult to injury, he wrote in a blog post Monday, “the guy who killed my sister was defended by Progressive’s legal team” during the trial. By Thursday, Fisher’s post sparked a national news story—and a debate over insurance practices—with coverage from the Associated Press, CNN, CNBC, a range of web outlets and an in-depth interview on CBS This Morning. The segment is well worth watching for the history of the case.
But how did this local story catch fire online and draw national attention?
The first key was the type of platform that Fisher used. He wrote his story on Tumblr, the popular blog and photo-sharing website. Unlike most blogs, which openly allow comments by any readers, Tumblr enables people to react to items only if they post a response by resharing the content on their own Tumblr page. It’s a subtle but significant shift in the site’s architecture, making it more of a dynamic network than a passive media platform. By raw numbers, that means Tumblr posts often draw fewer reactions than media websites. Yet when people feel compelled to respond or criticize an item, Tumblr fosters rapid and automatic broadcasts across people’s networks. A popular item at Huffington Post, for example, can draw more than 25,000 shares. Fisher’s Tumblr post, provocatively titled, “My Sister Paid Progressive Insurance to Defend Her Killer in Court,” had only about 11,000 shares by Thursday. But that was more than enough to get people in his network talking to their networks.
Fisher’s particular network was also critical. Plenty of worthwhile arguments and efforts are posted online, of course, and then lost in the web ether. Fisher is a Brooklyn comedian, and while he’s not famous, he already had a small network that follows him and, presumably, trusts him. So they took his story seriously and are probably shared it based on pure outrage and solidarity—without even calculating whether this was an “effective” strategy to change the company’s actions.