Wednesday, December 07, 2011

What Charlie Brown Taught Me About Christmas

image from
The Holiday Season may not be the best time to be concerned about sustainability and the environment.  It's all about BUY, BUY, BUY.  Heck, the term Black Friday, despite its morbid etymology is looked forward to with glee (at least for retailers, though Black Friday sales may not be all they're cracked up to be as an economic indicator).  Even Lucy tells Charlie Brown in A Charlie Brown Christmas that Christmas is run by a "big eastern syndicate" whatever that meant to an eight year old in 1965.

Guilt occasionally accompanies my acts of consumption, feelings that "buying of stuff" (perhaps phrased differently as "participating in the marketplace") is the root cause of much of our environmental and social justice concerns.

To be clear, my level of guilt is influenced by my emotional seeding at the time:
It dawned on me as I had lunch with an old friend a few weeks ago that guilt associated with participating in the market may be misplaced.  He's working on the EASE Initiative, an interesting project linking organizations working along the value chain of social change while building a marketplace with a "do good" undercurrent.  Another friend's soon-to-be active company here in New England  believes in the need for markets, and has asked questions about the kind of markets they'd like to participate in and and come up with their own answers.  Nearby Registry (coming in the Spring of 2012) will engage people in the tradition of gift-giving for special life events while supporting local businesses and building community capital.  The conclusion I've drawn from these two examples?

It's not the act of consumption that is the problem, it's how we consume.

Participating in markets and consuming goods has been a part of human culture since we organized settlements 12-15,000 years ago.  It was the way we connected with each other and obtained the goods we needed.  It was a RELATIONSHIP economy and in it's purest, earliest form it was strictly trade; you traded with someone you trusted and with whom there was a mutually beneficial need to trade (my bushel of dried cod for your sweet flint, animal hide, and oak-handled handmade axe).  While we traded we built social capital among our tribes and villages, such that when the guy I traded my cod with had an issue with a bear, I might help out.

As our societies and economies developed we moved from relational purchases to transactional purchases, with the pace accelerating as we tapped into the wealth of stored solar energy that is fossil fuels over the past 200 years or so.  Much of the social capital developed through relational transactions as you picked up books, shoes, groceries, coffee, etc. at your local merchants is now missing from villages, in essence "shipped out" to centralized, on and off-line retailing companies.  Trust is still a factor - the fact that Amazon can launch a campaign during the Holiday season encouraging people to act as their market research associates by using local independent bookstores as showrooms for $5.00 illustrates this point.  What does this say about who we trust and what we value?

So, were am I going with all this?
  • There is a need for markets
  • What kind of markets do we want?
  • What businesses do you trust?
  • What businesses do you want to trust?
I've bought stuff online (a lot of stuff - and from Amazon too) and I'm not advocating that we return to a barter economy (though, depending upon what you read and believe, that could happen whether we want it or not) only that we pause to think about what we buy, how we buy, and why we buy and what the answers to those questions mean to us as individuals, our communities, and the world around us.

Here are a few resources that I found interesting...I am sure there are many more.  What do you have to say?

Shift Your Shopping
Collaborative Consumption
The Story of Stuff
Business Alliance for Local Living Economies
The Gospel of Consumption
Mineral Information Institute - What one Human Needs
National Association of Manufacturers

Sunday, October 30, 2011

(re)Connecting for Change 2011

For the third year running, I decided to head down to New Bedford, MA for the last day of the Marion Institute's Connecting for Change event, a Bioneers by the Bay conference described as: internationally acclaimed annual gathering of environmental, industry, and social justice innovators who have demonstrated visionary and practical models for restoring the Earth and its inhabitants.
I enjoyed my visits to the event over the past few years, and was curious about what would be different (if anything) from what I'd experienced in the past considering the Occupy protests underway nationally and internationally.  Given some of the comments I saw written in the community sign-making area, it appeared that a few people were aligned with the Occupy protesters.

My visit focused on the speakers and performers gracing the stage of the Zeiterion Theatre, an historic space in downtown New Bedford standing as symbol to New Bedford's once (and future?) status in the nation's and regional economy.

Unfortunately, I underestimated the drive time to New Bedford (badly) and missed William Foote of Root Capital.  I've heard of the organization, and would have liked to have heard first hand about their mission to make finance for small-scale farmers in the developing world work.

I caught the end of Mercy Bell's performance (a nice way to arrive) and settled into the crowd to take in the rest of the morning's speakers and performers.  John Francis - Planetwalker's mixture of serious thoughts with one-liner levity made his message of taking responsibility for our individual impact on future generations easier to swallow.  His "A-ha!" moment came in 1971; he decided to forgo motorized transportation, after he and his wife drove down from their house to the San Francisco Bay to view an oil spill resulting from a tanker collision.  He realized that his actions were part of the problem, and he could do something about it.  Then, on his 27th birthday, he gave everyone a "gift"; he did not talk for the day.  Quickly, he realized that when he did not talk, he listened - intensely - and learned things that he missed when he was thinking about what he was going to say.

Chachi Carvalho took the stage for a powerful rap performance.  I find Bioneers by the Bay interesting because they integrate arts into their programming about solutions-based sustainability and social justice.  These performances provided a brief respite for my mind to process what I just heard and exposed me to things I would otherwise not experience.

John Perkins was next, sharing thoughts about native cultures' prophesies associated with 2012.  We're not talking about the movie versions of 2012 but the mythological versions of multiple native cultures.  His scheduled partner, Llyn Roberts was unable to make it and unfortunately I did not get the name of her replacement (I believe her first name was Liza).  The story of the Eagle and the Condor helps illustrate the multiple versions of this story.  The Eagle represents the society of the intellect and mind an the Condor represents the society of the heart and spirit.  We're at the time where these two societies have the chance to combine and  the next phase of humanity's growth....combining the best of both.  What else might we combine?
  • left & right
  • for & non-profit
  • industry & environment
  • oil & water 
My restless nature revealed itself toward the end of the morning as I fell in and out of the auditorium.  Kari Fulton climate justice and new media activist of and Laurie David writer of The Family Dinner: Great Ways to Connect... joined us.  The key take-a-way from Kari was that "future justice" happens now - the decisions we make today will affect those coming after us - we have a moral responsibility to think in the long-term.  Laurie made the point that everything we need to address as a society - economic, social, educational, environmental (and more) issues - crosses the family dinner table.

Remember that awkward holiday dinner moment when someone brought up a politically charged topic?  It may have been awkward, and those moments are necessary as we process our social challenges.

Here's the full program of the weekend's events.

I appreciated the people people tweeting from the event.  I was not there Friday or Saturday so searching by the event organizer's pre-determined twitter hashtag #cfc2011 provided some small bits of insight into what was happening.  Depending upon the type of event and the content people share, I find this immensely valuable.

I am sure there is much more to say about Bioneers, Connecting for Change, and the Marion Institute...thoughts?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

What Will be (Y)our Legacy?

image from
The birth of my first child and the recent deaths of two innovative American business leaders prompted me to think about what we're leaving behind.

The innovators I'm referring to are Steve Jobs of Apple and Ray Anderson of Interface.

Before their deaths, I'd fallen into the habit of reading The Economist's obituary upon receiving each new issue.  I found myself seeking information about how people were remembered upon their passing, and  appreciating the wide range of personalities featured there; "celebrities" of a different sort, most of which I had never heard of and maybe should have.  They made their marks in different ways and in different places in the arts, politics, social justice, sport, etc.  This weekly reading brings up questions about my legacy, our generational legacy, and society's values reflected in who we collectively remember, celebrate, or demonize.

With that in mind...

It's easy to understand the volume of celebratory media coverage; blogging, writing, reporting, and business hand-wringing about the loss of Steve Jobs.  He was truly an American icon in the technology world, contributing to the transformation of how we experience communication technology and consume information. In many ways, Ray Anderson was just as iconic a visionary leader in the corporate sphere, but instead of seeking to transform our lives with access to information through personal technology, he was seeking to transform manufacturing, rebuilding a company with zero impact on our planet.

It's easy to see why Steve Jobs is celebrated, his design influence has touched millions globally since Apple's early days with Steve Wosniak in the late 70's.  In fact, according to John Maeda at RISD, he brought "design" as a discipline into the world of technology, making it consumer technology such that just about anyone could pick up or plug in an Apple product and start using it.  Apple's products (with a heavy dose of his perfectionist design input) made it easier for people with access to the products to generate, experience, and share media in many forms and encouraged innovation in other disciplines like publishing and medicine because of what they could do with Apple's devices.  I may not own any Apple products (gasp!) and I'm a beneficiary of their innovations.

As a consumer society generally enamored with bright and shiny advances in technology, Apple's products fit quite nicely.  We celebrate them because they conform to our perception of advancement, moving forward, of gaining access to more and varied content, and looking ahead to the next great thing.  These are admirable qualities in many ways, though we tend to gloss over the underlying problems associated with relentless consumer electronic advancement, like where are these made?  Where does the energy required to make this device come from?  What happens to it when it's obsolete in 6 months?  What about the digital divide?

Ray Anderson took the entrepreneurial leap in the 70's as well, betting his future on modular floor-coverings, depending upon your point-of-view, not as sexy as consumer electronics.  After building a successful company through the 1990's Ray was asked by his employees to help them launch a sustainability initiative driven my customer demand.  Not knowing where to start, he read Paul Hawken's The Ecology of Commerce and had what can be called an epiphany - his company, and therefore he, was a despoiler of the earth, an ecological criminal - their activities extracted natural resources, processed them into forms that were not digestible by nature at their end of life, leaving the responsibility for their disposal elsewhere.  It was then that he committed to making Interface an ecologically neutral company.  Consumers' wide-eyed Apple gadget awe may not be duplicated when they learn about the Interface FLOR carpet tile solution.  They're made of 100% recycled material that, when worn out, is torn up, disassembled, and remade into a new FLOR tiles, closing the loop of industrial nutrients.

What's more empowering, taking a picture and sharing it with the world from wherever you are or knowing that there's a company seeking to reduce their impact on the earth to zero?

Imagine if Ray and Steve had met and had a conversation, and Ray told Steve about his "spear in the chest" realization about his contribution to despoiling the earth and the need to take action to preserve the planet's resources for his children and grandchildren.  Imagine if Mr. Jobs' design vision not only encompassed the customer's use with the customer, but with the eventual return of Apple's products to the biosphere with no impact. Wow.  There have been advances in electronic recycling, and Apple is among the companies taking action, is it enough?

To be clear, I'm not seeking to tear anyone down nor do I have some clear-eyed answer to how we proceed as a society in times of rapid technological change and finite natural resources.  What I am proposing is that we pause to question our assumptions about what progress is, what we remember and celebrate, and perhaps cast our forward-looking gaze a bit further down the road thinking about how our actions will affect generations to come...what are we leaving behind?

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Rekindling the Green Mojo

image from 
Could someone pass me that can of Green/Sustainable/Socially Just/Free Range Whoop Ass over there?

I seem to have misplaced my passion for creating a sustainable future over the past few years.  Once I left the like-minded, change agent- friendly, we can save the world environment of BGI, and lost the energy I drew from it, things....slowed....down.

Most of my efforts at work to help us establish a cohesive recycling program have been placed on the back burner.  I'm the first to admit that my real job responsibilities have trumped my voluntary work "on the side".  I'm wagering that's an issue many people with green intentions struggle with.

I tend to believe that my green inertia was rooted in feeling overwhelmed by the environmental and social challenges facing "the world" (these are all inter-related as far as I can tell);

  • climate change
  • political upheaval in various places
  • natural disasters
  • energy (where it comes from and where it WILL come from)
  • economic uncertainty
  • bigotry and social inequity
  • food supply issues
  • etc., etc.
Oh, and then we had a now we're charged with shepherding this little person into and through the world for the rest of our lives.  What I've found is that while the birth of our child certainly increased my sense of responsibility, its hasn't exacerbated the overwhelmed feeling when thinking about those issues mentioned above.  Instead, it's served as a bit of a kick-start for getting that Green Mojo think about how to make a positive impact no matter the scale.


What keeps your Green Mojo charged up? 

Friday, April 22, 2011

Place-Based Education - Creating Bio-regional Economies

Image from Friends of Tarrywile Park 
With the arrival of Earth Day I started thinking about how we might best achieve what the day symbolizes.  That got me thinking about articles I've seen highlighting new perspectives on our educational system, how it contributes to a sustainable future (does it?), and how we might modify it to achieve agreed upon social goals while preparing people for the economy in which we live.  Complicated? are a few ideas...

The founder of Fair Trade Sports and BGI marketing instructor Scott James penned a blog post on offering some ideas that made sense to me:
Not everyone...aspires to attend a four-year degree program. In fact, some of the brighter high school students are wise enough to see the amount of debt they would be saddled with after a four-year program, and take a pass on it. As more motivated and smart students opt out of the four-year college program altogether, the idea of a re-skilling college seems more viable. 
Think of a reskilling college as a new, hyper-local version of the defunct trade school, focused on teaching the specific skills needed to thrive as entrepreneurs in this age, tailored to the unique aspects of the bioregion (Washington State companies will be different from Florida companies). The world may currently be flat, but when cheap energy goes away, life (and our companies) will become much more regionally focused.
Regionalization makes a lot of sense; (ideologically, I'm on board) and economically, if one assumes that rising energy prices will crimp global supply chains (as is already happening) "re-regionalization" is going to happen.  Why not plan for it now?

Then I saw this from Carol Sanford on the BGI Sustainable Business Blog looking at the concept of sustainability in business.  Why did I think about this is the context of education?  These concepts must be integrated in our educational curriculum from start to finish, including business education if we're to have meaningful long-term change. 
First: We have to stop working on saving, protecting, conserving, and restoring the environment. These ideas are not based on living systems or on creating healthy ecosystems.  Instead, we have to understand the working of Life-sheds and how we can engage with Life as an integral player in the ecosystem to support self-regenerating capacity. We have to stop thinking of Life-sheds as environments outside of us that we are responsible to steward, and know instead that humans and businesses are included in the working of Life, inside their ecosystems, not outside of them. 
Second: We have to stop using market and customer research, classifying buyers by demographics and generally effacing the lives of the individuals we seek to benefit. We have to build champions inside our businesses who know and care for the lives of stakeholders outside our walls. Then we can be deeply responsible for the health, vitality, and fulfillment of people who trust and count on businesses to do what they cannot or do not want to do for themselves. 
Third: We have to stop using the concept of suppliers and employees, especially as we conceive of their roles now. We have to re-imagine them as co-creators in the pursuit of beneficial effects in the lives of customers and other stakeholders.  A responsible business’s offerings flow continuously from Earth to Earth—from concept and resources all the way to reinvestment of “waste” into something of higher value than downwardly recycled compost. When we know that businesses are living systems within other living systems, then we understand that there are no supply chains. There are no chains, period. There are only value-adding processes.
The "Life-sheds" Carol referred to might be considered the bio-regional economies as Scott referred to them, or maybe that's too limiting.  Either way, I find it fascinating to think about bio-regional "states" that leverage their inherent resources to provide goods and services within their boundaries as a hedge against disruptions in the global economy.

This wonderful news from the NYTimes on the problem of skating through undergrad business school caught my attention, as it ties into the "why" of higher education.
Scholars in the field point to three sources of trouble. First, as long ago as 1959, a Ford Foundation report warned that too many undergraduate business students chose their majors “by default.” Business programs also attract more than their share of students who approach college in purely instrumental terms, as a plausible path to a job, not out of curiosity about, say, Ronald Coase’s theory of the firm. 
“Business education has come to be defined in the minds of students as a place for developing elite social networks and getting access to corporate recruiters,” says Rakesh Khurana, a professor at Harvard Business School who is a prominent critic of the field. It’s an attitude that Dr. Khurana first saw in M.B.A. programs but has migrated, he says, to the undergraduate level.
Certainly, emerging from an educational institution with skills applicable to the economy in which one functions is important.  Yet, if we're simply churning out pegs to insert into functional holes without adding critical thought to the process and the education, are we adding value to society as a whole?

What about the physical spaces in which we learn? They influence how we experience education in subtle ways we may not quite fully appreciate. I was fortunate to experience what might be considered and "alternative" learning environment at Islandwood on Bainbridge Island...and loved it. This Fast Company feature from last year offers some interesting insights into design of facilities we call "schools".  They're akin to learning might we design these spaces to foster the learning we seek while instilling a sense of responsibility to the world we share?

The ultimate question is (no, not that!), what are we seeking to accomplish with our educational system?

This is a complex issue and I am sure there is more to add to the conversation...please add your thoughts. 

Friday, April 01, 2011

April Fools'...

...well, not really.

I had grand designs of creating an Onion-esque news piece complete with video and multiple blog entries about Facebook and other social networks deciding to "upgrade" their users' accounts to automatically generated QR code profiles; they would look at all your "stuff" on the network and mash it all together into a code that someone could scan or click on and get an online summary of "who you are".  The kicker is that you'd have no say on how the description came out, therefore, unlike The Kennedys, you'd be better served actually dealing with it and seeking to change the things that go into "The Profile" instead of suppressing it.  The other idea was that Facebook's overall page layout was one big code scanable by special marketing computers located in third world countries to enable massive "social spamming"...

Do me a favor and drop a quick comment if you read this...I'll take any suggestions for pranks (that I'll think about and never do) for 2012

So, if you bothered to can the QR code expecting a Rick Roll or something like that, here's your opportunity.

Oh, and in the cruelest of April Fools' jokes, it's snowing here in the Boston area.  Nice.

Have a great weekend.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Cars versus Cyclists (social media can help fix it!)

Image: Terry McAfee
I was prompted to revisit my thoughts on the relationship between automobile drivers and bicyclists as I joined my first group ride of 2011 last weekend.  As a bicyclist and an automobile driver explanations like "cyclists are scofflaws that do not belong on the road" and "car-drivers are selfish jerks" are far too simplistic; first of all, cyclists are allowed to be on the roads, and not all car drivers are selfish jerks.

So, what's going on?  It's a systemic problem, we all have roles to play, no one wants to share, and no one wants to wait anywhere for anything at anytime.

As the predominant form of transportation for many, the automobile has an important place in our society.  Roads are an integral piece of cultural and economic development dating back to humanity's development of settlements about 12,000 years ago or so.  They may not be so critical to cultural development now-a-days and still serve as the often-clogged arteries of our economy.  We've focused on building roads for motorized vehicles for the past 100 years; with that in mind it's easy to see why automobile drivers feel they have the right to proceed unimpeded by anything, let alone a cyclist.  I'll admit, when I strap myself into a car, fire up the radio, and enter the fray, I'm not so thrilled to see a police officer directing traffic or a group of cyclists impeding my progress.

It comes down to a lack of shared responsibility for each other on the roads; each person feels they're more entitled than anyone else to get where they want to go, whether it's car-to-car, car-to-bus, dump truck-to-car, bus-to-taxi, bike-to-bike, pedestrian-to-car, etc.  The big difference with the [insert motorized transport here]-to-bike/pedestrian is the balance of power.  Until traffic rules are enforced for things like tail-gating, failure to signal turns, poor headlight adjustment, stopping for pedestrians, etc., not much will change.

Let's turn to the rainbows and unicorns of social media to see how we might solve this problem! With it's ability to bridge divides and bring about revolutions I'm sure we can leverage it to help solve this problem, right?  Considering that there is evidence that we seek out information that confirms our beliefs and facts that refute our beliefs are summarily discounted perhaps the key lies in joining groups that support the other side of the issues we're passionate about. Gasp! What would we learn about each other if a pro-bike advocate were to participate in an anti-bike Facebook community?  Anything?  Would it be fruitless? Useful? Infuriating?  All of the above?

I did some searching and planned to join the roads are for cars not bicycles. get off the road!! group but there's been no activity for nearly a year (did their passion run out?).   Hmm...I checked out Get off the road D__KHEAD! as it seemed like the next logical choice but there's been nothing since last August, and it's based in Australia, no dialogue to seek there.  The Petition to keep cyclist off the road and on the sidewalk! group is based in Vancouver, BC.

I checked a bunch more...not much going on.  Maybe Facebook isn't the place for this mending of fences after all.  Where should I turn?

Friday, January 21, 2011

What's Your Cultural Change Character?

It's recently come to my attention that I might be a curmudgeon.

It's alarming. When I think of that word, I think of an old man (in my case) railing against the status quo and generally longing for simpler times, which generally occurred when he was young. And, if you did not agree with him, you're an idiot.

This realization dawned on me as I read Alan Atkisson's Believing Cassandra. It was given to me a few years ago and promptly lost in the best intentions of my sustainable reading pile. I wish I'd read it sooner; it does a good job of addressing the reasons I play the curmudgeon (bordering on iconoclast) far too often and offers tools to help me take on other roles that I might like.

Take a look at the figure above, the Anatomy of Culture Change. Does the curmudgeon really help move something forward? Is that where one would like to be when it comes to creating a sustainable future (moving a new idea forward)? No. There are times when I act the change agent, and maybe the transformer (depending upon mood) but the curmudgeon takes over all too often.

Take a look at Mr. Atkisson's terms for culture change types [emphasis mine and you may note similarities to types from Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point and Geoffrey Moore's Crossing the Chasm]:
  • Innovators: person or group who invents, discovers, or otherwise initiates a new idea
  • Change Agents: people who actively and effectively promote new ideas
  • Transformers: early adopters - gatekeepers for an idea making it to the mainstream
  • Mainstreamers: the majority of the culture
  • Laggards: late adopters - satisfied with the status quo; change when they have to
  • Reactionaries: actively resist change - may have a vested interest in the status quo
  • Iconoclasts: angry critics of the status quo; nay-sayers not idea-generators
  • Spiritual Recluse: contemplatives that withdraw to seek, and preach, eternal truths
  • Curmudgeons: change efforts are useless; they project disillusionment & disappointment and can derail change efforts
So where do you fit now? Have you taken the initiative with something, attempting to bring it into a new place? Maybe you're ambivalent to it all, and will await whatever happens, riding the waves of change that make it to the middle of the road.

The real question is...

Who are you and what role do you want to play?

Friday, January 14, 2011

Personality Types; Are You Primed for Social Media?

I've been talking to small, mission-driven business owners/founders I know about how they utilize social networking tools like blogs, twitter, Facebook, etc. to build relationships with their customers and prospects and to tell their stories. I've come to the conclusion that personality types have something to do with their willingness to explore and use these powerful engagement outlets; (image from

those on the introverted side of the spectrum tend to be less likely to spontaneously start using these tools than those with an extroverted tendency.

OK, my sample size is small, and I did not administer the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (or any other such test)...and cross-reference it with their marketing activities. If I include friends and acquaintances that I know on and offline and there engagement in these networks there seems to be something to this.

It's distinctly possible that it's not just the use of social media that small-business/ entrepreneurial personalities all along the intro-extroverted spectrum struggle with. Depending upon the nature of their businesses and their skills, its distinctly possible that their overall use of any kind of communications to tell their story and reach customers suffers. One might posit that someone with an operational background might be less likely to spend the 16th hour of their day attending to twitter (which they need to do during working hours by the way) instead of working on their latest packaging machine challenge. It's also possible that they're so passionately engaged in their work & mission, something they've committed to with heart and soul, that they're lost in their own story and believe that everyone else already "gets it".

Regardless of the small-business owners' proclivities and personality types, the people that might buy their products/services or are talking about things relevant to their businesses use these social networking tools. And, the beauty of these services is that they're pretty darn easy to set up. Of course, content is king so a blank Facebook page may not be very engaging, and could end up hurting the business if left that way.

Has anyone else experienced this in their conversations with mission-driven/small business/ entrepreneurial types?

Thursday, January 06, 2011

People WANT to Buy From Your Small Business

Why do people tweet and or post (wherever it may be) their dismay after getting a “talk-to-the-hand” response from the regular customer service channels? BECAUSE THEY WANT TO BE HEARD! They want to connect with someone that might treat them like a person instead of a transaction and solve their problem. Social media tools offer cost-effective ways for small locally-focused companies to listen to what customers are asking for and respond, building their community of brand advocates - and their business.

Give them a better option...listen to what they're asking for...set up a twitter account with your company's basic information and create a Google or socialmention alert (search kurrently and collecta if you're so inclined) for competitors in your community, looking for people posting comments that ask for help. See what you get. You may need to tweak the searches to get what's relevant to the solutions you provide. Imagine if you heard someone seeking a resolution to a problem that you could solve, when they complained about someone else (maybe that anonymous big-box store down the street, or even in the next town). Once you offer a solution that meets their immediate need (and you serve them well) you have the opportunity to invite them back and go about developing a long term relationship, telling the story of your business and why it matters to them and the city or town they live in.

Something I read late last year made me think about this “Delta said it sees social media channels like Twitter and Facebook as a chance to offer better customer service. So it created a channel called @DeltaAssist and told workers in the social-media lab to offer customers quick fixes, such as rebookings and reimbursements. Sometimes that means even waiving rules that consumers typically find unbendable at airlines.”

If there are enough customers using this channel to communicate with the companies they do business with, and they see it as a way around the traditionally unsatisfying customer service channels, it seems that you better be listening. If the term "twitter" and "Facebook" are new to you, maybe it's time to take a look and enter the fray, with listening the first priority.