'Operation Chokehold' shows the social media mob has influence

"Operation Chokehold" has come and gone, with no sign it even put AT&T in a headlock. But with so many people complaining of service already so spotty, could anyone really tell the difference short of network failure? For AT&T, there is little victory in surviving the coordinated, customer-driven denial-of-service attack. The publicity has done damage enough, and, as I blogged yesterday, everything is different now for companies looking to manage their brands and customer relations.

Dan Lyons, writing as Fake Steve Jobs, called for Operation Chokehold -- a coordinated effort by AT&T users to overwhelm the network with heavy data requests -- at 3 p.m. ET today. Lyons started backpedaling on December 16, perhaps after realizing that Operation Chokehold had become a serious movement, with a Facebook fan page and buzz spreading across social networks, blogs and the news media.

Today he blogged: "This was meant as a joke. My blog mixes fiction and non-fiction, and the item on Monday was fiction...But some people took it seriously and now the joke has taken on a life of its own...This may be cathartic, but it is pointless. A few thousand people are not going to make a dent in a wireless network. If you participate, you'll most likely be wasting your time."

Perhaps the joke is on Lyons, and he's not laughing. It's often difficult to separate Fake Steve Jobs' sarcasm from Dan Lyons' anger -- clearly at AT&T, if no one else. The more recent backpedaling posts smell of fear, that Lyons started something he couldn't control. Hey, that's how it is with mobs. The moment you yell, "Fire!" in a crowded theater or "Lynch the bastard!" before a cornered man, the mob rules. Mob psychology sets in -- yes, even on the InterWeb.

Netizens selecting a Smaller Worldview

That's because behavior long observed about traditional media has transferred to the Web. Contrary to popular conventions about the Web opening minds, people are more likely to read information or participate in social groups that reinforce what they already believe. Example proof point is a recent study conducted by Ohio University professors Jingbo Meng and Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, from which they published paper: "Looking the Other Way: Selective Exposure to Attitude-Consistent and Counterattitudinal Political Information."

The researchers conducted two sessions -- with 156 and 221 college student participants, respectively -- presenting online news information for review. "We found that exposure to attitude-consistent messages exceeded exposure to counter-attitudinal messages and that the proportion was remarkably consistent for article choices and exposure time," the professors write. In plain speak: The participants generally choose to engage news and information that reinforced predisposed attitudes.

"Selective exposure" is not a new concept. Social psychologist Leon Festinger proposed in his 1956 and 1957 books When Prophecy Fails and Theory of Cognitive Dissonance the concept of "cognitive dissonance" -- the idea that people feel uncomfortable with contradictory viewpoints and settle on a single one. Festinger's work, which Meng and Knobloch-Westerwick repeatedly reference in their paper, is foundational to the concept of selective exposure -- that people associate with arguments or ideas that support their own beliefs.

Marketers, politicians and propagandists have long exploited selective exposure in their campaigns. But who would have thought people would selectively expose themselves (no sarcastic comments, please) to some information and not others on the massively informational World Wide Web? Betanews commenters wag "fanboy" as an accusation, but on the Web many people are just that. They seek out news, information, people and social groups that support what they already believe -- what reinforces their self identity. Whatever political, religious or cultural view people seek, they can find it on the Web. Mac users seek out Apple blogs, news sites and communities; Windows users do the same. Look at the number of Facebook fan pages or how many like-minded people gather on one forum or newsgroup but not another.

Timeless Damage inflicted on Brands

Then there are the disgruntled, like dissatisfied AT&T customers who seek out places to vent and share their frustrations. Until this week, they were leaderless. Then Fake Steve Jobs made a proposal that gave them leadership, direction and a goal -- even after he attempted to relinquish his leadership role. It's a social media mob psychology and itself a power for companies like AT&T to reckon with. The social media mob has the power to tarnish a brand, to undo what millions of dollars in marketing generated in good feeling.

The mob's mark won't easily go away, because the Web is more timeless, less temporal, than other forms of media. Whether a month or five years from now, disgruntled AT&T users can Google "AT&T service interruption" and find blogs, forum posts, news stories, Tweets and Websites about Operation Chokehold and much more. They can reinforce their beliefs, magnify their anger and find community in people who share their gripes.

Some people will call Operation Chokehold a failure because AT&T's network didn't fail. But as a movement of like-minded customers angry at AT&T, Operation Chokehold is a chilling success. Their voice was heard, and it won't be the last time. Lyons wasn't the only backpedaler this week. AT&T partly backed down on proposed data caps.

The social media revolution started quietly, unexpectedly in 2006, with the launch of Twitter and YouTube and the public availability of Facebook. Many other cloud services followed, and some of the best are tied to iPhone or other handsets. The social media mob can gather anytime, anywhere and on anything. Some Betanews commenters will scoff at the idea -- and please do be opinionated in comments. It means that you don't have to be one. If Dan Lyons can gather a social media mob from what he calls a joke, how much more power or influence could there be?

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