The most popular web video of all time—“Gangnam Style”—was posted in 2012 by Psy, a little-known South Korean K-pop singer. His catchy song-and-dance routine racked up one billion views in the first five months alone and today has more than three billion views!
When Gangnam Style first came out, people of all stripes—even world leaders—were seen publicly busting out with Psy’s horse-riding dance moves. Then UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, who met with the singer, told him: “I hope that we can work together using your global reach . . . You have, I think, unlimited global reach.”
The web’s unparalleled influence also makes unwilling stars out of bad actors, such as businesses that mistreat customers. “Smartphone cameras and social media have democratized information and shifted power to consumers,” says Mae Anderson, tech reporter for the Associated Press (AP). “Companies can no longer sweep complaints under the rug.”
In April 2017, United Airlines learned this modern lesson the hard way. Passengers at Chicago’s O’Hare airport recorded and posted video of an Asian American doctor, David Dao, being ignominiously bumped from their scheduled flight to Louisville to make room for a United employee. The video—showing security officers yanking the bespectacled man from his seat and dragging him, bloodied and bruised, down the aisle and out of the plane—went viral.
The public’s outrage was instantaneous and universal. In China— Dao’s ancestral homeland and the second largest aviation market in the world—the video quickly attracted 330 million views on Weibo and WeChat, Chinese versions of Twitter and Facebook Messenger.159 A typical reaction was this post on Weibo: “The security guy beat him until his face is covered in blood. Is this the so-called American democratic society?”
Caught off guard, United’s CEO, Oscar Munoz, issued an inept statement that was less than sympathetic to the passenger, exacerbating the global public’s fury. Munoz eventually backed down and apologized, but it was too late; the passenger’s lawyers held a press conference and announced they were suing. A few weeks later the two parties settled out of court.
The web’s stunning ability to swiftly elevate the status of everyday people and situations is revolutionizing the retail industry as well. Historically, 1995 will always be remembered as an annus mirabilis—a miraculous year—for tiny startups such as craigslist, eBay, and Amazon.
Amazon was founded by Jeff Bezos, a computer and business wonk whose smashing success story echoes those of nineteenth-century titans such as Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and John D. Rockefeller. The latter once remarked: “It requires a better type of mind to seek out and to support or to create the new than to follow the worn paths of accepted success.”
Bezos exemplified that “better type of mind” when he set out to create an online bookstore. He wanted to call it Cadabra, as in abracadabra, but recanted when his attorney mistook the name for cadaver. He also considered calling it Relentless, but ultimately went with Amazon, reportedly because he saw his business becoming as big and powerful as the world’s largest river. Indeed, his original slogan was Amazon: Earth’s Biggest Bookstore.164 (Nevertheless, even today, enter www.relentless.com and you will be directed to Amazon.)
Working out of his garage, Bezos went live with his web business in July 1995. During the first month alone, he sold books to customers in all fifty states and forty-five countries. “I knew this was going to be huge,” Bezos recalls. “It was obvious that we were onto something much bigger than we ever dared to hope.”
Despite experiencing setbacks during the turn of the millennium— the so-called dotcom bust, when a glut of ill-conceived, poorly executed online startups failed—Bezos flourished, by doggedly sticking to a winning strategy. In 2013, just after purchasing The Washington Post, he explained it this way: “We’ve had three big ideas at Amazon that we’ve stuck with for 18 years, and they’re the reason we’re successful: Put the customer first. Invent. And be patient.”
Clearly, Bezos’s planet-sized ambitions were a perfect fit for the planet-sized web. For, as with the Sweet Brown and Gangnam Style videos, Amazon went viral, its subscriber base growing exponentially.
Today, as of this writing, Amazon is worth in excess of $700 billion That’s more than Microsoft and more than twice as much as Walmart,169 making Amazon the third most valuable company in the world, behind only Apple and Alphabet. In July 2017, Bezos overtook Bill Gates to become the richest man in the world—and, not taking account of inflation, the richest man in history—with a current net worth north of $140 billion.
Happily, Amazon’s success is being shared by a growing legion of mostly small businesses hawking their wares on the sprawling website— akin to the myriad shops within a mall. Today, more than two million third-party vendors sell about 50% of Amazon’s total number of paid products, which comprise everything from A to Z—just as the company’s beaming logo boasts.
By all accounts, e-commerce generally is radically disrupting the retail landscape, the way shopping malls once did America’s downtowns. As 2017 drew to a close, an article in Fortune led with this ominous sentence: “This year is going to go down as the worst year on record for brick-and-mortar retail.” In all, retailers closed more than 7,790 stores—including Radio Shack, Payless, Rite Aid, Sears, Kmart, and Gymboree.175 Continuing the downward spiral, more than 3,800 stores are expected to shutter in 2018, including big names such as Toys R Us, Walgreens, Ann Taylor, Best Buy, and Gap.