SOPA: A Case Study in Digital Action

by / Tuesday, 07 February 2012 / Published in Strategy
In 1997 I worked on a March to Conquer Cancer. Modeled after Earth Day, it aimed to increase funding for cancer research through the power of grassroots coalitions. Well funded, the kick-off involved full page ads in the Washington Post and The New York Times with a phone number call to action. On the other end of those phone calls? A small team figuring out how to organize a movement on the fly – without the full benefit of digital.

It was fantastic. And frightening. And fulfilling. All at once.

SOPA, Komen and Planned Parenthood scrolling on my Facebook wall, have me thinking about that project. I still spend my days figuring out how to get people to take action – but now that action centers around interaction, engagement and conversion on behalf of consumers and retailers. A social movement still moves me – especially when it uses the uniqueness of digital to compel action.

Specifically, the reaction to SOPA reminded me of the power of the medium in which we work – and the power of people who purposefully engage with it.

Frankly, it fired me up.

My politics are mine, not Fluid’s. But independent of political leaning, SOPA is a strong case study for digital action and impact.

Case study: SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act)

Politicians excel at marketing. Who doesn’t want to stop online piracy? Legislation namers could name consumer products that would fly off the shelves. Those for SOPA argued an end to copyright infringement. Those against it argued censorship and a chasm of liability where one violator could bring down a whole domain.

Within 24 hours stands in Congress had shifted. The Act died. Why?

The sites that would be most impacted took to the digital streets. Like consumers holding a boycott of buying, they made it clear that SOPA could shut down their store fronts.

Google donned a blacked out banner and produced 4.5M signatures on their anti-SOPA petition. In 24 hours. Have you ever stood on a sidewalk collecting signatures for something? Or selling Girl Scout cookies? 4.5M is a big deal. Relative to their daily traffic it’s less impressive (about 2.8% of their daily traffic) but still big.

Wired blacked out content. Craigslist put up a intercept page that looked like 1996 all over again. Flickr let people black out each others photos. Wikipedia went completely dark. GoDaddy, initially pro-SOPA, felt the heat of people threatening to switch their domain hosts.

Like a deprivation study that determines there are moments when people can’t live without milk or Burger King Whoppers, these actions hinted at what SOPA would take away. It gave consumers and Congress a glimpse at a future with SOPA in place. And that future freaked people out. And if it didn’t, it sure made them aware of the impact.

Delvin Coldewey at TechCrunch argues that this wasn’t activism – it was collective bargaining by large entities that happened to align with individual outrage. I don’t think activism has to be solely about the Davids and not the Goliahs. But admittedly, this gets harder to swallow if the Goliaths are against an issue for which I’m advocating.

What we, and brands, can learn from SOPA:

– Showing often trumps telling
– What people do with your brand or products (vs. what they are) is important
– Collaboration multiplies impact (as long as its not collusion)
– Think about a world without your products – what would people miss?
– A glimpse at your power can imply consumer impact
– Pick your political stands with care (& perhaps gusto)

This issue will be back. As it should be. Copyright infringement and piracy need to be addressed. I like that the issue, and the reactions, are driving digital innovation. I, and Fluid, dig digital innovation. Bring on the next iteration…


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