The power of email

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Fri Mar 23 06:58:55 MST 2001

Nation Magazine, April 9, 2001

My Nike Media Adventure


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 [].
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

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 and, 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,,, 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

Louis Proyect
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