There is much that is wrong with the world and corporations are often to blame. The most effective method of protest against the corporation is the boycott. But boycotts are hard work requiring far too much time and effort. Targeted boycotts are easier but leave the majority of guilty corporations unpunished. The problem is that boycotts are uncoordinated and require instant access to information at every potential purchase. I offer a potential web solution with four components: (1) a crowdsourced machine-readable database of objectionable things and their supporters; (2) a user area where users can register their participation in boycotts of those things; (3) user software to aid purchasing by providing instant information on whether a given product should be avoided; (4) a public website showing manufacturers’ estimated losses as a result of their actions.
Introduction: why boycott?
We live in a world of corrupt politicians and psychopathic corporations. This much is entirely uncontroversial, and there’s no need for examples here.
Here’s the real problem: what the fuck can we do about it?
There are many tactics: letter-writing, indignation, using your vote, peaceful protest, violent protest, website banners, and so on. They have their place but their effectiveness is limited for the simple reason that they don’t attack the enemy where it hurts.
We must understand that corruption is fundamentally driven by money and profit, not by ignorance, immorality, chutzpah, an illusion of public support, or anything else. And so it must be here that we attack it.
There’s one simple tactic that does so: the boycott.
Boycotts are hard
In January 2012, Maddox posted an article about SOPA, the conclusion being that boycotting is the only way we’ll stop SOPA and everything like it that will follow.
What the article doesn’t address is the subsequent problem: boycotting is hard. Why?
- There are hundreds of organizations that officially support SOPA/PIPA/the next incarnation of the many bills designed to take away your freedom.
- Of those, most will have many subsidiary companies or other connected organizations, meaning potentially thousands of brands one has to be aware of.
- We buy things all the time and we don’t have the time for research into the political stance of our shampoo manufacturers (etc).
- This is just one boycott! The well-informed person may want to boycott many pieces of legislation, many corporations, many states, entire industries they disapprove of, and so on.
Here are some scenarios demonstrating the barrier:
- You’re at your local shopping mall looking to buy X. There are several shops that sell X. But which of them support that new bill Y you hate so much? No time to find out …
- You’re at your local convenience store looking to buy X. There are several different brands of X. But which of them are associated with sweatshop work? No time to find out …
- You’re shopping for Xs in the vegetable aisle. There are Xs imported from countries Y, Z, and Q. But which of those have a horrible foreign policy? No time to find out …
A non-solution: select, target, scapegoat
But we know that boycott can be effective at a critical mass of support and media coverage. This is what happened with GoDaddy.
This is the basis of Maddox’s proposal: choose a small number of companies and hit them hard. This targeted, scapegoating approach is based on the understanding that most people can’t be bothered to do the research.
It is more effective than the “learn this list of companies” approach. The problem is that all those other companies get off free!
A potential solution: the web, crowdsourcing, and purchasing adviser software
The good news is that the number of people who would like to take part in boycotts is far larger than those that have the time and determination to do so. There is latent energy to be unleashed. Unleashing this energy must be done by lowering the barrier to entry. In short, if I’m going to boycott, then the research must be done for me and be instantly accessible.
My proposed solution has four key parts:
- A publicly accessible, well-researched, up-to-date, independent, crowdsourced database of wrong-doings and their supporters. The world already has a half-solution: Wikipedia, the success of which relies on user-generated content. However, it is unstructured content designed for the casual reader, and the information is not targeted to boycotters.
- A users’ site where the boycotter can declare the causes that they support. In conjunction with the above database the site can then produce a comprehensive list of corporations/states/etc they should boycott.
- Software to help the user assess individual purchases. For example:
- A browser plugin. This has the following components:
- Access to the user account on the above site. It therefore knows the manufacturers (etc) the user wishes to avoid.
- Access to databases of individual products (such as the Household Products Database). It therefore knows, given a product, whether the user should avoid it.
- Access to the user’s browsing and the ability to inject warnings. For instance, when shopping on Amazon.com, the plugin highlights products to boycott.
- The opt-in ability to supply the user’s boycotting history to the users’ site.
- A barcode-scanning smartphone app. Similar components to the above plugin, with the ability to identify a product from its barcode (like existing price comparison apps, e.g. Scandit for iPhone or Barcode Scanner for Android).
- A browser plugin. This has the following components:
- An online summary of boycott effectiveness. If companies don’t know why their sales are falling, they won’t change their stance! Using data volunteered by users, we can publish (user-anonymized) estimates of how many dollars a manufacturer has lost due to their support of such-and-such.
Here’s a quick feasibility study:
- The required technology exists and is mature. User-produced, user-audited content is everywhere. Independent product databases exist. Barcode-scanning is reliable.
- People are comfortable with the technology. Users already guide their purchases with price comparison and user-review websites/apps.
- Initial costs are for the software; volunteers and funding should be available. The open-source voluntary model is successful. Necessary funding could also be found on, say, Kickstarter.
- Ongoing costs are mainly for servers, and other sites get by. Non-profits like Wikipedia survive on voluntary contributions and this should be no different.
So, what do you say? LET’S BOYCOTT!
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Yes Yes! How has this not received more response? I have had the same idea kicking around, both in my brain and in various facebook posts, for some time now. I would be willing to work on this becoming a reality, so we can all use it for it’s intended purpose. There are some extensions of this which could also be quite useful.
Any progress on this project?
There is a rather well made project, called Buycott which allows users to choose campaigns which they would either like to support or avoid. The app performs barcode lookups and determines if the product you are considering purchasing squares with the choices you’ve made. It works fairly well in most situations, though I have found that in certain stores, the network coverage can be spotty, so performing the lookup via network can be troublesome, however that has nothing to do with the app itself. While it may be possible to allow local database sync to the individual phone, that would be fairly cumbersome for most users.