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KAI RYSSDAL: To paraphrase just a little bit here, live by the boycott, die by the boycott. Some in China have started their own protests to counter threats of a boycott of the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games. They want shoppers to boycott Chinese outlets of the French supermarket Carrefour over its perceived support of Tibet, and they're using the Web and instant messaging to spread the word.
Organizing effective boycotts, or anything that involves group behavior, isn't easy. Usually you have to get a critical mass of committed people before anybody wants to actually do anything.
Gabriel Spitzer has this story of a company in Chicago and its fix for collective action.
GREG RUDIN: Remember, I signed up for movie-star quality.
ZOREN STEPANOV: This costs you 70 cents more.
GABRIEL SPITZER: Greg Rudin, COO of The Point, is just a few steps from his cubicle, getting his hair cut. A bunch of Point employees needed haircuts, so they thought they'd bring a barber into the office, but barber Zoren Stepanov wasn't going to invest time in a house-call unless he could count on a certain volume of business. Seven people agreed to go under the shears.
RUDIN: He did a phenomenal job. I might want a little bit more off the top.
STEPANOV: You're kidding me, right?
RUDIN: That's why we actually wanted to make sure that we had enough to make it fully worth Zoren's while.
Point employees made it worth Zoren's while by applying their own model. Participants don't commit to anything unless a proposed transaction or activity reaches a certain tipping point of interested parties. In Zoren's case, the tipping point was seven customers. Company founders think that concept is a powerful tool for organizing collective action, whether a group purchase, a charity effort, or a demonstration, and they think by helping like-minded people form groups, advertisers will pay to target their messages to these groups. Venture capital firm New Enterprise Associates had enough confidence in the plan to invest nearly $5 million. Founder and CEO Andrew Mason says The Point's model has all kinds of applications.
ANDREW MASON: By delaying action until you know that you have all the pieces in place for the action to be successful and get the outcome that you desire, you're reducing the risk of acting as a group.
People are using The Point to buy heirloom chickens for poor women in Nicaragua, and to organize a boycott of Pepsi.
Another group wants to launch a giant inflatable banana into space above Texas. Trust me. They're dead serious. Or people can use The Point to test if a business venture is viable. Founder Andrew Mason says the 90s band Cracker is using The Point to see if it's worth playing a show in a small California town. They'll play if 150 people agree to come.
MASON: They want to know that the demand exists for them to go play that show before they're going to commit to doing something like that, so the campaign tipped, and now I think they're playing the show some time in the next couple months.
SEAN SAFFORD: It allows communities to emerge around very, very small phenomenon.
Sean Safford teaches at the University of Chicago business school. He says he's not sure The Point would move many people to act who wouldn't otherwise.
SAFFORD: What I think it might do is to take the people who would have acted anyway, and instead of wasting their time trying to find a community that's not going to go anywhere, switch your resources and your time and your effort to a movement that's going to have more impact.
JEAN CARTER-HILL: This year we had turnip greens here. We had collared greens. We had mustard greens, and next year. . .
This is one area where the Point could have an impact. Jean Carter-Hill runs a community garden in one of Chicago's poorest, most crime-ridden neighborhoods.
CARTER-HILL: That is our shed. The shed has been broken into three times, so we decided to try to get something more secure, so that's why the Point is helping us out to get a steel shed.
Dozens of people have logged onto The Point, entered their credit card information, and promised contributions, often just $10 or $25. If they reach $2,000, all the cards get charged, and Jean Carter-Hill gets a shed.
CARTER-HILL: I just hope we get to $2,000, because I don't know no other way we can get it.
MASON: Hey Zoren, I'm ready.
STEPANOV: What up, beautiful?
MASON: The best for the last, yeah?
Back at the Point, Andrew Mason is sliding into the barber chair. He says the company's not making money yet, but if enough people buy into their model, the business may soon tip into profitability.
In Chicago, I'm Gabriel Spitzer for Marketplace.