NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell sits in the crowd during the the Ribbon Cutting Ceremony for Levi Stadium on July 17, 2014 in Santa Clara, California.
Michael Zagaris—Getty Images
By Nilofer Merchant
September 17, 2014
IDEAS
Nilofer Merchant is an author and speaker based in Silicon Valley, California.

Colleagues of mine are taking bets on whether Commissioner Roger Goodell of the NFL will still be in charge by this week’s end. His days are numbered, some argue, and others say the NFL is beyond change. They say that Ray Rice, the Ravens’ running back, would be playing football again no later than 2016.

They could be right.

I used to think that social media was good for sharing, but not for action. The web serves as a way of getting ideas out there, and lets the media serve as an echo chamber of populist ideas, but those ideas rarely, if ever, change actual outcomes. After all, one can point out the lack of outcomes from the Occupy movement, or the Arab Spring, to see little net progress. Those “movements” were all huffing and puffing, with no ability to “blow a house down”.

But that pattern seems to be changing. Earlier this year, in a two-month period, three CEOs got fired as a direct result of online pressure. First, the CEO of Mozilla, Brendan Eich, resigned after public condemnation for his past donations to anti-gay politicians and causes. Nearly 70,000 people signed a petition at CredoAction, and the popular dating site OkCupid urged its users not to use the Firefox browser in protest. The CEO of RadiumOne was fired after Kara Swisher of Re/code raised visibility to his domestic assault conviction, and the online exposure created pressure for that corporate board. And the co-founder and President of GitHub, Tom Preston-Werner, resigned after a harassment accusation that accused him of sexism.

In some ways, these cases are not at all alike. Sexism is different from domestic violence, which in turn is different from anti-gay sentiment. But the way things unfolded followed a specific dynamic, one that appears to be happening in the Rice/Goodell situation as well.

Lone individuals find others who share their values, and connect online to find a larger cause they share in common. In the Rice situation, people shared short yet poignant stories of domestic violence via the hashtags #whyIstayed and #whyIleft. This elevates the specific situation from a singular incident to the larger pattern, so the issue isn’t about Janay Palmer/Ray Rice specifically, but about the 25 percent of all women in the US who have been victims of domestic abuse at some point.

Disparate groups are forming into coalitions quickly. The 2014 version of feminism goes broad and deep–uniting across issues of domestic violence, sexism, reproductive rights and equal pay. It includes the likes of corporate power-broken Sheryl Sandberg, singer Beyoncé, and politician Wendy Davis. The fact that women who represent half of the US population – customers or potential customers for Budweiser, Nike, and so on – act as one is not insignificant.

Collective action has become the focus. It’s not enough to raise awareness or have a viral idea. One group announced plans to fly planes with the message #goodellmustgo over different NFL stadiums. Facebook conversations started to engage this idea, galvanizing new behaviors and to use “goodellmustgo” to get this done.

It’s this loud, coordinated and galvanized group that is guiding the “old power” players differently. Senator Cantwell (D-Wash) came out to say NFL should no longer enjoy the not-for-profit status it holds. And, Nike, Visa, Campbell Soup, and Budweiser have all protested the NFL handling to various degrees, with Anheuser-Bush publically condemning Goodell’s leadership yesterday.

All of this does create its own set of worries. After all, what we’re describing here is a mob, not a fair process. Without due process, any one of us might find ourselves aligned with egregious acts. But what is clearly happening is that connected people are taking matters into their own hands to put their notion of a fair and good society into action.

The NFL is trying to get ahead of this public outcry by taking steps of its own. By September 15, they had recruited and named four prominent women to advise them on domestic violence and sexual assault policies. And some, including New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand, think that Condoleezza Rice might be made an NFL commissioner. These moves are clearly fueled by the public pressure on the league to say they understand the issue and are working to fix it.

These means – using social media to be connected by shared ideals – give everyday people levers of change. As people galvanize around ideas, they will turn them into reality. They will boycott and drive disinvestment. They will lobby for new policies, and call for new leadership. For some organizations like the NFL, this will come as a big surprise, but for the people claiming these as their routes to power, it is part of the natural evolution of what social technologies first promised: that every voice counts.

Where Goodell ends up is anyone’s bet. But what we can see is that business as usual is no longer that.

Nilofer Merchant’s high-tech business experience spans shipping 100 products, resulting in $18B in revenues. An author of two books on collaborative work, her next one is on how to make your ideas powerful enough to dent the world (Viking, 2016).

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