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PdF '11 Recap: Jeremy Heimans Says Collective Consumer Action Has to Go Beyond Groupon

BY Nancy Scola | Tuesday, June 7 2011

Jeremy Heimans, co-founder of Avaaz, and now of Purpose.com, poked a sharp stick at social consumerism sites like Groupon and Gilt Groupe in his time up on stage during PdF '11 this morning.

Sites like Groupon, said Heimans, do a clever job borrow from the "bag of tricks" of grassroots political organizing -- like selling people on the idea that their individual actions can matter in the aggregate, or exploiting a natural human inclination to respond to a sense of urgency. That's not exactly surprising, says Erica George over on Twitter. After all, Groupon grew out of The Point, an experiment in harnessing political and social actions structured around, to borrow a phrase, hitting a tipping point. The Point didn't work, but Groupon has; last week, of course, Groupon filed for its IPO, and there's talk of billions in the air. But there's something, perhaps, out of sync between the power of the tools being used and the end goals they're put to.

"You can be on Groupon," said Heimans, "and you can feel like it's the Arab Spring sometimes, right?"

And so, Heimans called for people to tap into what Groupon knows, and not to actually stray that far -- he's arguing that collective tools can be used for collective action to prompt corporations into changing how they do what they do. Governments might be inured to attempts by the public to change their behavior, said Heimans, but "corporations are actually incredibly porous targets for political organizing." Take, for example, the campaign to get 1-800-Flowers to offer and promote certified fair trade flowers.

Political organizers should take a page from the popularity of consumer deal sites, said Heimans. "We need new tools. We can't leave it to the Groupons and the Gilt Groupes to do all the innovation in this space." Give it a watch.

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