Social media and high technology are subverting the economy's traditional, top-down hierarchies. As consumers gain leverage, corporations are learning to obey.
Molly Katchpole, a freckled, chipper, 23-year-old post-grad, doesn't look like a rebel at the barricades. Yet twice last fall, she led consumer revolts--against Bank of America, then Verizon--and both times, she prevailed. Katchpole became the emblem of angry consumers who have seized on the reach of social media to take on the giants of the business world. The insurrections heightened the sense that the spread of high technology is shifting power from institutions to individuals. What used to be a one-way conversation--from corporations to consumers, from rulers to the ruled--is becoming a dialogue.
Katchpole's success in talking back landed her a dream job. A progressive nonprofit advocacy group in Washington called Rebuild the Dream hired her to help run its campaigns to make student loans more affordable and reduce the principal for underwater mortgages. Those are just the sort of hot-button issues that tech-savvy, petition-happy young Americans might be expected to support.
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Wishful thinking. Although Katchpole's petition to persuade Bank of America to revoke a monthly $5 fee on its debit-card accounts drew some 300,000 signatures last October, her recent blog post blasting Sallie Mae, the huge student lender, attracted only four comments. So far, at least, Katchpole has been unable to recapture the wellspring of wrath that empowered her to bring two megacorporations to their knees.