Is The Internet Creating An Age Of Consumer Power?

from the there's-an-app-for-that dept

I have to admit that I can't quite tell if Baltimore Sun columnist Dan Rodricks is being somewhat facetious in noting that for every "ephemeral" consumer wrong (ridiculous fees, interest rates, closing costs, lines at the motor vehicle bureau) groups of people are suddenly able to gather a constituency online and create a social movement. While some may mock the idea that a bunch of consumers might gather online to fight the good fight over lines at their local motor vehicle bureau (department, administration, whatever your local gov't calls it), it actually does seem indicative of how consumers are gaining more of a voice online -- and with that comes power. Yes, there are some ridiculous and overly broad complaints. But we're getting closer and closer to an age where companies that repeatedly screw consumers over will have a harder and harder time getting away with it. Too many businesses have been built on the belief that even if they treat consumers badly, not enough people will know (or care) to stop bringing them business. But we've already seen some signs of that changing, and that's only going to increase over time.


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  1.  
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    iNtrigued (profile), Oct 6th, 2009 @ 1:32pm

    The Little Guy/Girl

    I would probably take it one step further and say its not just consumers but the average Joe/Jane that are being empowered. With the ease of access to the internet and other chains of communication continuing to increase, we could be reaching an age where everyone's voice can truly be heard.

    I for one welcome that age with open arms. With increasing amounts of information available out there, we can make more informed decisions on just about anything.

    We may already be in this age actually. I remember when I was still in elementary school and doctors wanted to damn near cut me in half to correct some kidney problems. Luckily for me, my mother took it upon herself to research different surgeries online(and with Dial-up to boot... ouch). Found out about a laser surgery that only makes very small(and now nearly invisible) scars. Back when she asked the "doctors" about it they got all high&mighty on her and told her she shouldn't be doing research, just follow them blindly. I thank God she didn't!

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Oct 6th, 2009 @ 2:20pm

    What most companies these days are having a hard time realizing is that the internet makes them visible to the public.

    In the past, most businesses would be a name behind a product. Nowadays that name has a face, a voice, and a reputation, whether they're wanted or not.

     

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    Dark Helmet (profile), Oct 6th, 2009 @ 2:22pm

    Absolutely, yes

    "Is The Internet Creating An Age Of Consumer Power?"

    Depending on what you mean, absolutely it is. I don't believe it actually does much to lower prices on non-digital goods (at least not to much of an extent), but the ability to stop abusive behavior and scare the hell out of those that are abusive or even borderline abusive is certainly there.

    A case in point was when I did a trial membership for Bally's and then got bombarded with phone calls and SPAM from the GM of the local club trying to pitch memberships to me. I asked a few times not to be contacted, but she still did.

    Then I fired off an email noting the number of times I'd complained and my willingness to pursue further action against them if they continued. I threw a few links to the various local/federal laws prohibiting what she was doing. THEN, for added fun, I informed her that she shouldn't be doing this stuff in the internet age because look what I can find: First was consumer rants and complaints against Bally's nationwide, then a few links complaining about that SPECIFIC Bally's, then several the complained about the GM contacting me BY NAME.

    Needless to say, the apologetic email I got that same day was the digital communication equivalent of her shitting all over herself and then rubbing the dookie in her hair in dismay.

    They haven't contacted me since...

     

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    Anonymous Poster, Oct 6th, 2009 @ 2:34pm

    Three words prove this outright:

    Consumerist
    Dot
    Com

     

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    Lonzo5 (profile), Oct 6th, 2009 @ 3:22pm

    I believe it truly is, but governments and ISPs alike are doing everything in their power to limit this-- take the outrage expressed via Twitter over Iran's recent elections, for example. Now, much of the word got out due to these new powers of communications granted the people, but what would have happened if the government had decided to cripple internet and phone services? The president wants the power to do just that-- oh, he was quick to backtrack and say that this power would only involve certain key government sites, but what happens when you pull out the wrong couple of bricks? The whole tower crumbles. We as citizens need to solidify this power-- make it ubiquitous and impossible to revoke. A nationwide, and eventually worldwide mesh network-- an emergency internet, dependent only on power, needs to be established. Separate and independent from the world wide web, such a construct is largely necessary to protect our collective freedom to communicate and share (non-infringing, legal) information (which should both be inalienable rights). We've all seen how the phone companies and ISPs bow to the federal government. We definitely do not want to rely on the government for such a service. The FCC will obviously crush any efforts at this, but some way (perhaps printable solar-powered wifi stickers or something) needs to be found to make it impossible to prevent without confiscating the actual equipment. I'm not a conspiracy theorist (after all, these crimes are being perpetuated out in the open) but this country is looking at a dark future where freedom of speech and other rights are concerned. These things need to be considered. Yes, the internet grants us a great deal of freedom, but the internet itself is extremely temporary and can easily be defeated.

     

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    teknosapein (profile), Oct 6th, 2009 @ 3:25pm

    I think you are somewhat right

    in the past there was a saying that for every bad expirence 27 people will hear about it. the 27 being family friends and friends of the aforementioned. now it seems that has grown exponentially with the advent of the internet and surf by reading

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Oct 6th, 2009 @ 3:45pm

    Re:

    Of course the government and big corporations are trying to cripple our ability to communicate. Back when airwaves were first used they were more of a communication tool but now the FCC controls who can and can't broadcast where and it's all for the benefit of the rich and the powerful at public expense. Yes, they are working very hard to do the same to the Internet and if we are to prevent it we must constantly, CONSTANTLY, EVERY GENERATION must CONSTANTLY prevent it. It's a continuous, perpetual battle that must never go away. We must also be more proactive and try to take away the control that the rich and the powerful already have over the airwaves and the monopolies they have over infrastructure so that anyone can build new infrastructure and offer cable, television, and broadband at lower prices with better quality. We not only need to prevent new laws from taking away our freedoms, we must also overturn the existing laws that are taking away our freedom and restricting our communication. It's a constant battle, your children should be taught to stand up for their rights and what to look for and their children must be taught the same thing. That unless people are constantly standing up for their rights and the medium to express themselves ANONYMOUSLY online and express whatever they want, even on blogs, and to report news stories on blogs with safe harbors and no barriers to entry, etc... all of our freedoms will be taken away and we will be taken back to the days before the Internet was as influential as it is now, where corporations can get away with all sorts of atrocities and no one notices because mainstream media is corporate controlled and no one is here to check and balance them.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Oct 6th, 2009 @ 3:49pm

    Seems to be a necessity

    Over on /. there was a discussion about Verizon not properly supporting IPV6 (a related link: http://www.rollernet.us/wordpress/2009/10/verizon-refuses-to-provide-complete-ipv6/).

    One of the points raised in the comments was that it no longer seems sufficient to declare "I'll take my business elsewhere" and then do so, never to be heard from again. The business just quietly finds another sucker and keeps doing the same thing. Lawsuits are too costly for the individual, so that's not a valid threat either. The internet creates a more level playing field again for the reasons mentioned in the article. Rather than simply taking one's business elsewhere, a more effective technique is to use the facts of ones own experience to help others avoid the problematic product. That seems to magnify the pain enough to warrant attention.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Oct 6th, 2009 @ 3:56pm

    Re: Seems to be a necessity

    Please, never, NEVER, EVER assume that this luxury can not be taken away from us. Corporations and the government are working very hard to restrict our freedoms on the Internet. It's obvious, corporations have more rights than individuals (ie: they are invited to secret meetings but the public is not). Corporations have more power than the public. NEVER assume that the Internet is here to remain what it is. Don't take it for granted, the biggest mistake you can do is take the Internet, freedom of speech, civil liberties and civil rights for granted. These things can be taken away from us and if we don't CONSTANTLY stand up for what's right they will, I almost guarantee it. Corporations and the rich and the powerful work CONSTANTLY to control the public and this will never change. In the absence of strong resistance our rights will be taken from us. Not only must we work to prevent new laws from taking away our rights, we must constantly work to overturn existing laws that do so.

    We must stop being brainwashed into whom the mainstream media tells us are acceptable candidates to vote for or who they advertise the most and vote on candidates based on the merits of their position and not the funding of their candidacy.

     

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    John Doe, Oct 6th, 2009 @ 5:43pm

    Power to the People!

    Just look at what happened to Circuit City. They announce they are going to lay off much of their workforce, people revolt and quit shopping there and poof, a year or two later they are gone. Don't believe there is a correlation; just check the timing of the announcement and their stock price. I think a big part of this was due to the ability to organize a consumer strike against CC through the internet.

    Now should every company be punished to the n-th degree for every sin? No, you have to seperate the average disgruntled customer from a pattern of abuse by the company. But I think the internet finally gives people the power to spot the trends.

     

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    John Doe, Oct 6th, 2009 @ 5:47pm

    Re: Absolutely, yes

    Now that is funny right there. :)

     

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    Robin, Oct 6th, 2009 @ 6:05pm

    ClueTrain

    hey mike, remember the cluetrain manifesto from ~1999?

    http://cluetrain.com/#manifesto

    (scroll through the jump)

    i particularly like this one:

    "7. Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy."

    seems appropriate here, as does a large portion of the manifesto.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Oct 6th, 2009 @ 7:33pm

    Re: Re: Seems to be a necessity

    Thanks, I don't take it for granted. That's why I hang out at sites like this.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Oct 6th, 2009 @ 7:37pm

    Re: Power to the People!

    I didn't stop shopping at CC because of the layoffs, I stopped because they sucked and the other electronics stores in town were better. Don't credit 'teh powah of teh intertubez' too much when bad management and poor business practices are a more likely explanation.

     

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    cc, Oct 7th, 2009 @ 3:21am

    Not too relevant to this story, but in similar news:

    http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9138996/Eolas_files_patent_lawsuit_against_22_compan ies

    Someone needs to take those pricks out.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Oct 7th, 2009 @ 5:05am

    The way things are going, we might even become *gulp* CUSTOMERS again, instead of, you know, "consumers"... like greedy little chicks in the nest with mouths open waiting to be stuffed and stuffed and stuffed... FEED ME!!

     

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    John Doe, Oct 7th, 2009 @ 5:45am

    Re: Re: Power to the People!

    They had the same poor management and business practices long before they did the layoffs. Run a chart of their stock price for the last two years they were in business and then look at when the drop off started. Right after their announcement of the layoffs. No coincidence there. Sales plummeted.

     

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    Yakko Warner, Oct 7th, 2009 @ 7:34am

    Nice feel-good story...

    Doesn't seem to work in all markets, though. The first counter-examples that came to mind were cable/internet, which in many places hold a monopoly or duopoly, so even with consumer pressure there's little incentive to change; and cell phone providers, which is like picking the least of all evils that are getting more and more evil each day.

    Credit cards, too -- why is my savings account only earning half a percent, but my credit cards are raising their rates to nearly 25%?! Aren't interest rates supposed to be the lowest ever??

     

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    hegemon13, Oct 7th, 2009 @ 7:46am

    The BPA example

    I think a perfect example of the consumer empowerment of consumers is the widespread removal of BPA-containing plastics from the market. Some studies showed that BPA, often used in baby bottles and the interior coating for canned goods, can cause some serious, long-term health problems, especially for developing babies. There was a lot of question over the validity of the many studies, and the FDA took it's sweet time doing anything about it, then ultimately maintained that it was safe. Whether it was or not is beyond my realm of expertise, but it is irrelevant. What happened next is what is interesting.

    After the FDA's confirmation of BPA's supposed safety, there was a huge backlash online. Articles showed up regularly on Google News. People blogged about it. E-mail chains started about it. And a few months later, lo and behold, just about every baby bottle on the shelf now proclaims "BPA Free." Last week, I noticed one brand of canned vegetables at the grocery store with the same label. This did not happen because of government regulation, but because of the informative power of the Internet, and the consumer demand that resulted from it.

     

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    hegemon13, Oct 7th, 2009 @ 7:48am

    Re: The BPA example

    "I think a perfect example of the consumer empowerment of consumers..."

    And that's a perfect example of redundancy. I think I meant, "...a perfect example of consumer empowerment by the Internet..." Oh, well.

     

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    hegemon13, Oct 7th, 2009 @ 7:56am

    Re: Nice feel-good story...

    You're right. Consumer demand only matters in a competitive market. That's nothing new, but don't tell that to all the anti-capitalists out there right now. The only solution is government takeover! Just ask them.

    How about we get government-regulated monopolies, duopolies, and local monopolies OUT of the way, and thus allow real competition?

    That said, I understand there are some markets where collusion and unethical practices are far too common (for example, the current financial industry). It could well be because the financial industry has a bit more of a captive hold on their customers than other types of companies. In any case, I recognize that regulation is occasionally necessary, so don't assume I am an extreme, right-wing, pure-capitalist guy. I do, however, believe that a competitive market should always be the first attempt to attack a problem, as it is the most efficient by far, and it usually works.

     

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    Josh in CharlotteNC (profile), Oct 7th, 2009 @ 9:02am

    Re:

    As an avid reader of the Consumerist, I agree fully.

     

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    Yakko Warner, Oct 7th, 2009 @ 12:21pm

    Re: The BPA example

    But is that an example of consumer empowerment, or does it show the dangers of mob rule?

    What if BPA were the safest material available, and it was only the spread of bad information that caused companies to remove it, in favor of a compound that, it turned out, was more dangerous?

    I sure hope that wasn't the case in this example (it's also outside of my expertise). While it may be comforting to believe the truth will rise above the noise, I'm too skeptical to believe that will always be the case.

    In this example, I have to wonder: why did the FDA approve BPA? Did it just bow to corporate interests, or did it truly find it safe? Either answer is more than a little disturbing...

     

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    Jeff Molander, Oct 9th, 2009 @ 3:53pm

    Re: Re: The BPA example

    Yakko, the FDA is a fully funded PROMOTIONAL tool of industry -- not a REGULATOR of it. It's working AGAINST its stated interest (consumer protection).

    The public would always prefer believing a simple lie (BPA is safe) versus a slightly complicated truth: Respected, scientific studies indicate BPA is dangerous.

    This wasn't mindless mob rule. This was the viral spread of the plain, HIDDEN (by the FDA) truth.

     

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    Steve, Oct 14th, 2009 @ 4:27pm

    To be fair, corporations in particular by and large looked at the internet as a geek fad 20 years ago. Had any of them had displayed some actual foresight, they wouldn't be experiencing the problem that they do now. Instead they just figured that they could stifle dissent with lawsuits. Now instead of having a decent business relationship with their customers as a matter of practice, they have to get 4Chan'd into submission from time to time.

     

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