Shun till done

One of the benefits of having written my own feed aggregator, Temboz, is that I get to implement the functionality I want to make my life more productive. The most essential one is filtering out articles in subjects I am not interested. One of the first companies to make the cut of those I shun entirely was SCO. I consider them so despicable I don’t even want to hear about them, unlike the hyperventilating Slashdot crowd. Since then, a number of other companies have joined them, most recently Sony. And in the spirit of “a pox on both houses”, I now tune out anything related to either HD-DVD or Blu-Ray.

That said, this form of shunning could fairly be described as passive-aggressive, not constructive. The fact I will no longer entertain the idea of buying a Playstation 3, and probably many others like me, will probably have some effect on Sony’s sales, but their marketing people analyzing sales figures will almost certainly have no clue their contemptible attitude to DRM is costing them. Much of modern economics is grounded in information theory, specially how markets break down in the presence of asymmetric information. If you want your product choices to have real impact, you need to go further.

Corporations are not monolithic entities, all carefully tailored appearances to the contrary notwithstanding. That’s why the New York Attorney-General, Eliot Spitzer is so effective against crooked Wall Street firms (like his predecessor Rudy Giuliani before him), corrupt record labels and the like. Even if a fine is small compared to a firm’s profits, it has to come out of somebody’s budget, and few careers survive that kind of blow. One fired employee, even a high-ranking one, is not much either compared to the typical large corporation’s staffing, but it will have a disproportionate effect on the remaining employees’ behavior. This has been very visible at IBM and now Microsoft after their anti-trust cases, even if in the latter case it seems to be more of a subconscious hesitancy to get anything done.

The average consumer does not have the punitive powers of a Spitzer at his disposal, but there is another way. Unless a corporation is terminally dysfunctional, it will have clear lines of accountability, all the way to the CEO reporting to the Board. The power we have is to dispel the cloud of obfuscation that some may use to to keep their upper management in the dark about the consequences of their actions.

Writing a letter to the CEO can be surprisingly effective. You have to keep in mind the average public company CEO works upwards of 70 hours per week. That lack of free time, combined with their affluence means they are usually out of touch with reality, and need to be reminded of it. This has to be a letter, preferably on good stationery, typewritten but hand-signed. Emails simply do not carry much weight in the worlds of politics or business, because they are so easily written and thus not evidence of commitment. Usually you want to skip flunkies and go straight to the top, but if the CEO is on record supporting the policies you object to, you will have to copy your letter to the president or the chairman of the Board.

Many companies have started monitoring blogs and forums for possible PR headaches (or subcontract this reputation monitoring work to specialized firms). Blogging about your experiences is another good way to get their attention.

There are limits to what an individual can accomplish. If a corporation is dead-set in its ways, collective action is required. In many ways, the American consumer movement has atrophied since the days of Ralph Nader’s crusade against Detroit, whereas the opposite trend holds true in Europe. There are many fine organizations like the EFF that are fighting for your rights, and sometimes even public officials, local or national.

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