April 2, 2001 -- In the end, Nike just couldn't do it.
A graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Laboratory wanted to order a pair of shoes — and make a statement. But the Beaverton, Oregon-based company famed for its laissez faire corporate image found it could not comply.
Two months later, the e-mail exchange between Jonah Peretti and Nike has made it into the realm of Internet myth, a case study for the David vs. Goliath possibilities of Web activism, as well as a reminder that the Internet can be a giant echo chamber.
Sneaking in a Word
It started innocuously enough. In January, Peretti logged on to the Nike Web site and attempted to order a pair of personalized Nike sneakers. The word he chose to be branded on his shoes was "sweatshop."
But Nike refused his order, sparking off an e-mail exchange between customer and corporation that became a telling, if hilarious case history of the dangers attempting to shift control from producer to user. The exchange only ended with Peretti asking for a snapshot of "the 10-year-old Vietnamese girl who makes my shoes." (For the full exchange, see related story).
The saga of Peretti attempting to order a pair of shoes did not end there. A few weeks after the exchange, he forwarded the e-mail to a few of his friends.
The rest, as they say, is Internet history.
Spreading the Message
Within a few weeks, the exchange had traveled around the world. At its peak, Peretti received around 500 e-mails a day from Asia, Australia, Europe and South America.
Reactions ranged from fan mail saluting his stance against Nike to angry e-mails accusing him of boosting traffic on the Nike Web site.
"This will go round the world much further and faster than any of the adverts they paid Michael Jordan, more than the entire wage packet of all their sweatshop workers in the world to do," wrote one appreciative recipient.
Academics informed him his correspondence had crept into their course work and adoring female fans wanted to know if he was single, offering to promptly relieve him of any lasting loneliness, should he desire.
Two months after he sparked off a virtual revolution, things are finally quieting down. Peretti is hard at work completing his masters thesis. E-mail messages to the hero of the Internet bounce back with a message apologizing for being unable to get back unless it's a personal or work related message and media requests are being fended off.
A Life of Its Own
Looking back, the 27-year-old graduate student who took on a giant corporation is still astonished at how forwarded e-mails between amused friends and bored colleagues could create such a storm.
"It's been interesting to see just how things happened independently of me," he said. "I would get angry e-mails saying 'why are you forwarding this to me?' But it wasn't me. It just took on a life of its own."
But as the embers of Peretti's personal tirade against capitalism die, the old questions of just what do these little typhoons of Internet activism achieve before they die down still linger.
Arguments can swing both ways. On its part, Nike's response has been consistent: the company does not have sweatshops around the world, nor does it employ child laborers.
Like many American companies, Nike Inc. does not manufacture its own products. It is a marketing and design firm that buys its goods from independent contractors, mostly in developing nations where wages are low. Typically, a $100 pair of Nike shoes costs about $16.75 on the factory floor.
Worldwide, Nike has contracts with 700 factories that employ 550,000 workers in 50 countries.
Stirring Up Trouble
"Clearly, he was attempting to stir up trouble, he has admitted it," said Beth Gourney, a spokeswoman for Nike. "He's not an activist. Mr. Peretti does not understand our labor policy. If he did, he would know what we do not hire children, our minimum age for hiring is 18."
Added Gourney: "And we don't apologize for not putting the word 'sweatshop' because our policy clearly states: 'We reserve the right to cancel any Personal ID up to 24 hours after it has been submitted.'"
Nike, by the way, did confirm that traffic on their Web site greatly increased during the Peretti-Nike furor, although a spokeswoman declined to disclose their rate of increase.
But as the micromedia of the future, the exchange is an example of how the Internet, at the very least, can cause corporations to break out into a cold sweat.
If Nike's business interests have not suffered, it has certainly suffered a good portion of the online world heartily sniggering at its inability to "empower" its consumers.
For Peretti, it's an astonishing lesson of how a little goading can take on a world of its own. "It makes you realize how insane things can get," he said. "If people want to kill me and marry me, you know it's getting out of control."
Click here to read the Peretti-Nike e-mail exchange.