Culture Jamming, Memes, Social Networks, and the Emerging Media Ecology
The "Nike Sweatshop Email" as Object-To-Think-With

Note: This is a work in progress. Send email to with comments or suggestions.

Nike's web site allows visitors to create custom shoes bearing a word or slogan -- a service Nike trumpets as being about freedom to choose and freedom to express who you are. Confronted with Nike's celebration of freedom, I could not help but think of the people in crowded factories who actually build Nike shoes. As a challenge to Nike, I ordered a pair of shoes customized with the word "sweatshop." Nike refused my order. A contentious email exchange ensued which was subsequently distributed widely on the Internet as an email forward. Eventually, news of the dispute was reported in major newspapers, magazines, and on television. You can read a detailed account of "My Nike Media Adventure" in the April 9th issue of The Nation.

My Nike media adventure was mostly an accident -- I never expected the dispute to generate so much attention. The Nike Sweatshop email took on a life of its own and sometimes I felt like I was just along for the ride. I realize now that the campaign thrived because it allowed people to participate in a larger cultural transformation. The Nike emails became my guide for understanding this transformation. I found myself engaged in discussion about social networks, memes, culture jamming, and bloggers. I began to discern a media ecology defined by micromedia, middle media, and mass media (terms to be defined below). What began as a local act of protest grew into a quest to understand a global transformation.

The purpose of this on-line essay is to share this learning experience with other activists and researchers. The Nike Sweatshop email will structure the discussion by serving as an "object-to-think-with", a phrase sociologist Sherry Turkle coined to describe artifacts that help us understand complex cultural trends. I trace the Nike Sweatshop email as it moves through the media ecology, pointing out important concepts, technologies, and trends as I go. Frequently, I provide links to supporting materials. This essay is meant to be a guide to a myriad of useful on-line resources.

Introductory Links:
Parts of this on-line essay are based on "My Nike Media Adventure", which appeared in The Nation, April 9th, 2001.

The original correspondence and links to media coverage are archived on

Ordering My Own "Nike Sweatshop" Shoes: Culture Jamming

The story began January 5th, 2001, when I ordered a pair of Nike shoes customized with the word "sweatshop." My request was laced with irony: I was asking Nike to help me protest their own labor practices. My goal was to redirect Nike's publicity machine against the company it is supposed to promote. The shoe customization service was designed to associate the Nike brand with personal freedom, so my prank attempted to turn the tables by using the same service to raise awareness about the limited freedom enjoyed by Nike sweatshop workers. This simple strategy is an example of an increasingly popular phenomenon: Culture Jamming.

Culture Jamming is a strategy that turns corporate power against itself by co-opting, hacking, mocking, and re-contextualizing meanings. For people accustomed to traditional politics, Culture Jamming can seem confusing or even counter-productive. The following email is representative of the type of message I received from people who were uncomfortable with Culture Jamming:

Why do you want to support Nike and their immoral production of shoes and condemn them at the same time? I found your little dialogue immature and morally irresponsible. If you really think that sweatshop labor is wrong, then don't buy Nike shoes.
I agree that the Nike Sweatshop action is immature, in the sense that the intervention is antithetical to the old ideological rallying cries of the political movements of the 1960s and 70s. Culture Jamming is a younger movement that celebrates the possibility of ironic, humorous and contradictory political actions.

Although I received a small number of messages from people who were baffled by my approach, a growing movement appreciates Culture Jamming. One of the reasons that the Nike Sweatshop email spread so rapidly is that there is an informal network of people interested in sharing examples of successful Culture Jams. Sharing the Nike email was one way to participate in a larger movement that is advanced by organizations like Adbusters, ®TMark, and the Billboard Liberation Front. For the growing legions of Culture Jammers, forwarding the Nike Sweatshop email was just another opportunity to participate in a larger social movement.

Culture Jamming Links:
Spend some time browsing,, and
You might want to read back issues of Adbuster's magazine, participate in the featured campaigns at ®TMark, or learn the art and science of billboard improvement from the BLF.

Releasing the Nike Sweatshop Email: Memes, Exponential Growth, and Social Networks.

I sent the Nike Sweatshops email to a dozen friends and immediately it began racing around the world like a virus. I was astonished that something I decided to share with a few close friends could replicate literally millions of times. I began to receive thousands of emails, mostly letters of support, from people living on all seven continents. Without really trying, I had released what biologist Richard Dawkins calls a meme. Dawkins describes the meme as a "unit of cultural transmission", such as "tunes, ideas, catch- phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches." The most important thing about memes is that they replicate themselves, "spreading from brain to brain." As the Nike Sweatshop email spread from Inbox to Inbox, I gained a visceral sense of what Dawkins had in mind.

The rapid rate at which a meme can spread is explained by the dynamics of exponential growth. Although not mathematically complex, exponential growth is notoriously counter- intuitive to human brains. It is shocking that sending one email to a few friends could launch a global campaign. But consider this hypothetical scenario. You send an email to 10 friends, and each friend forwards the email to 10 of their friends. If this process continues just 6 steps the message will reach a million people. After 10 steps, the message would hypothetically reach more people than the total population of the earth. This dynamic explains how the Nike email could spread to so many people in so little time.

However, the dynamics of exponential growth do not ensure that a meme will spread. Dawkins explains that some memes have "high survival value" and "infective power" while other memes die out quickly. In the context of emails, this means that some messages get erased while others get forwarded. The Nike Sweatshop meme had success because it appealed to several different demographics, including Culture Jammers, union organizers, teachers, parents, anti-globalization protesters, human rights advocates, religious groups, and people who simply enjoy a humorous prank. The Nike Sweatshop email thrived because it had access to such a wide range of different social networks.

Since people only forward email to people they know, social networks were the only way that the Nike Sweatshop message could spread. But this still does not explain how the meme managed to travel outside of my own personal social network. After all, I only sent the email to my closest friends and they only forwarded the message to their closest friends. Yet in a few weeks, the message was circulating among thousands of people that none of us knew. At some point the meme jumped from my social network (left leaning individuals interested in technology), to union organizers, Culture Jammers, and religious groups. How did this happen?

This jump can be explained by the popular concept of "six degrees of separation", which was discovered in the 1960s by Harvard psychologist Stanley Milgram. Milgram's research shows that certain gregarious individuals belong to many social groups, and as a result they link several different social networks together. As Malcolm Gladwell explains in a fascinating New Yorker article, "a very small number of people are linked to everyone else in a few steps, and the rest of us are linked to the world through those few." These well connected social hubs are the reason that people far removed from my own social network (e.g. religious groups, members of the US military, anti-globalization protestors) received the Nike Sweatshop meme.

Meme Link:
"Memes: The New Replicators," Chapter 11 of Dawkin's 1976 book, The Selfish Gene. Although much has been written about memes, Dawkin's original piece remains thought provoking.

Social Network links:
"Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg" by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker, Feburary 11, 1999. Gladwell's piece is fascinating, and when you are done reading you are guaranteed to have a better understanding of social networks.

Once you have read Gladwell's article, I suggest that you visit the Oracle of Bacon web site a the University of Virginia. It turns out that actor Kevin Bacon is also an object-to-think-with. By playing the "6 degrees of Kevin Bacon" game, you can get a feel for how social networks connect everyone in Hollywood.

My Nike email started circulating among my friends. But eventually I was getting messages from enemies. Read some of the emails I received to get a sense of how the Nike Sweatshop meme jumped across social networks.

The Nike Email Travels Through the Media Ecology: Micromedia, Middle Media, and Mass Media.

Without modern communication technologies, The Nike Sweatshop meme would never have existed. Email, personal web sites, and blogs enable the digital equivalent of word of mouth. The Internet is revolutionary because it provides a technical distribution network that overlays social networks. This makes memes spread faster and social networks more powerful. The concept of six degrees of separation becomes more relevant when a distribution technology exists with the potential to actually connect people that are six social steps away from each other. Dawkins describes memes as self-replicating ideas that spread on their own, but it is clear that effective distribution technologies are as important as the meme itself. As the Nike Sweatshop email spread, I gained new insight into the structure of the contemporary media ecology, leading me to recognize three classes of distribution technologies: micromedia, middle media, and mass media.

Micromedia: The Personal Touch
Micromedia includes all personal communications technologies, including email, telephones, personal web sites -- even the ancient technology of face-to-face human speech. Although micromedia is intended to support personal communication between a small number of people, the Nike Sweatshop email is an example of a meme spreading to a much larger audience through personal communication channels. As people forwarded the meme to their friends, they often prefaced it by adding a personal note such as, "John, I thought you would appreciate this," or "Check this out, Sarah." Even though the meme went to millions of people, the personal quality of the communication remained intact. People only got the message if it was recommended by a personal acquaintance.

Although the personal touch has its charm, it is also unreliable. It is difficult to predict and impossible to control what friends will want to share with each other. Even if a meme spreads through email successfully, there is not a reliable way to determine who received the message or the total number of people it reached. I still do not have any idea how many people have received my Nike Sweatshop meme and I have heard estimates that range widely from less than five hundred thousand to over 15 million. As the Nike Sweatshop meme circulated, I received thousands of email messages giving me some idea of the number of people who received the meme. I assume that most people did not go to the trouble of sending me email. We can only guess how many people received the meme.

This chart represents the people who sent me email about the Nike Sweatshop meme between January 15th, 2001 and April 5th, 2001. People sent many fewer emails during the weekend which explains the gap in the middle of the chart and the more subtle ripple of the entire chart. This chart shows a total of 3655 email inquiries.

There is another type of micromedia that still has a personal feel but avoids some of email's unruliness. Thanks to software freely available at, an exciting self-publishing movement has started on the web. The blog, short for web log, helps ordinary people publish their personal musing on the web. Blogs allow people to become personal web curators by compiling annotated links to web sites that they find interesting. These personal web sites tend to aggregate small audiences of friends and like-minded individuals. They can also help transform an obscure web page into a full blown meme. Soon after the Nike Sweatshop email began circulating, it was posted on a Blog site called Tim Shey originally used his blog to share ideas with a small group of friends, but the Nike Sweatshop meme began to draw new visitors to his site. A growing number of other blogs began post the Nike Sweatshop emails or link to the Nike post. Once again, micromedia's personal touch expanded to reach a larger audience. Since it is easy to count web visits, I know exactly how many people saw the Nike Sweatshop dialogue at

This graph represents's total web traffic from July 1st, 1999 through May 3rd, 2001. The site began as a place for Tim Shey to share links with his friends but after the Nike Sweatshop meme exploded he welcomed over 70,000 visitors in just five months. This compares favorably with the 64,535 vistors who saw the story on the the Village Voice's well-established web site. Thanks to Tim Shey of and Miles Seligam and Akash Goyal from the Voice for supplying this information.

Micromedia Links:
To create your very own blog, visit

Like most blogs, is updated regularly with the latest bits of news, gossip, and ideas from around the web.

The power of micromedia is celebrated in " Micro vs. Macromedia, The Power of Now", in Content Wire, April 30th, 2001.

Middle Media: The Community Blog
Middle media describes emerging publishing technologies that help communities filter and aggregate the messy jumble of content produced by micromedia. There are literally millions of potentially interesting web pages. Innovative sites like Metafilter, Plastic, and Slashdot invite the on-line community to identify web pages that are most interesting. With varying degrees of editorial oversight, these sites present fresh links hourly. These links represent the very best of the type of content you might find on a personal blog. More importantly, middle media sites provide opportunities for a large community of people to engage in discussion about the posted links. Links to the Nike Sweatshop dialogue were posted on Plastic, Metafilter, and Slashdot. Within minutes of each post, visitors engaged in discussions about ways to circumvent Nike's censors, the economics of shoe production, and the politics of the anti-sweatshop movement. In email form, the Nike Sweatshop meme only elicited a brief moment of individual reflection. Middle media transforms this moment into a globally accessible public forum.

Middle media is still in an experimental stage, but it is already providing a more democratic, participatory model for publishing. At, for example, particularly active visitors can gain enough "karma points" to become one of the official editors of the site. The community defines the topics of interest and the most active members of that community make sure that the content on the site maintains a certain level of quality. This democratic structure is highly effective at identifying issues that matter to the public. This means that middle media sites have the potential to transform an obscure piece of net lore into a nationally covered news item. This is exactly what happened in the case of the Nike Sweatshop meme. Middle media helped a humorous email forward become a topic of public debate by transforming micromedia buzz into a newsworthy social issue.

Middle Media Links:
Metafilter [Archive of Nike Sweatshop discussion]
Plastic [Archive of Nike Sweatshop discussion]
Slashdot [Archive of Nike Sweatshop discussion]

New Approaches to Middle Media from the MIT Media Lab:
Mememail and Blogdex.

Mass Media: Getting It for Free
Nike spends almost a billion dollars a year promoting their product through the mass media. Unfortunately, it is prohibitively expensive for activists and concerned citizens to buy mass media exposure. This is why Internet campaigns are so appealing. Better yet, a successful Internet campaign can result in free mass media coverage in the form of news stories. I was shocked by the mass media coverage that the Nike Sweatshop story received. For a few weeks, I was interrupted several times each day by phone calls from reporters soliciting interviews and producers requesting radio or TV appearances. It is still somewhat astonishing to me that the Nike Sweatshop meme transformed itself so quickly from an email forward to spots on live national and international television.

My initial astonishment gave way to a desire to understand the transformation. How did a meme transmitted through micromedia and debated on middle media sites suddenly become a mass media story? The answer to this question can be explained by the psychology of journalists. Reporters are often people who have eschewed more lucrative professions because they want to make a positive social impact by informing the public. However, many journalists find themselves covering carefully scripted press conferences, or worse, converting corporate press releases into news stories. The Internet provides these disgruntled journalists with an opportunity to discover authentic stories. Reporter after reporter "discovered" the Nike Sweatshop meme, either as an email forward or on a site like, and it was clear from the tone of their voices that they were excited by this process of discovery. I encouraged this journalistic enthusiasm by saying things like, "it would be awesome if you did a story" or "it is so cool you found the Nike email on the Internet." A few days later the Nike Sweatshop meme would be covered by another mass media outlet.

General media ecology link:
"Human Portals" in Brill's Content, May, 2001, provides an interesting account of the emerging media ecology.

Opportunities for Participation

A broad social and technical transformation is creating new possibilities for political participation and direct action. The emergence of terms such as culture jamming, social networks, memes, blogs, micromedia, and middle media, signify the first attempts to grapple with the emergence of new technologies and social practices. It is difficult to predict how these concepts will evolve or how current cultural trends will develop. Although the future is always uncertain, it is clear that there are exciting opportunities for participation right now.

Activists interested in reproducing the success of the Nike Sweatshop meme have started asking me for advice. My hope is that this essay will suggest possibilities for participation. In particular, I encourage activists, consumers, and citizens to join the thousands who are:

1) challenging corporations with innovative culture jams,
2) starting their own blogs,
3) engaging in debate at forums like Plastic, and
4) becoming the architects of clever, politically progressive Internet memes.

These techiques are an effective way to promote political participation and challenge entrenched power structures.

The Nike Sweatshop meme has run its course, but new memes have already taken its place in the media ecology. Two recent examples involve creative resistance to policies advocated by President Bush. An email from the JustSayBlow campaign speaks directly to our chief executive: "President Bush, if you deny federal funds to students who won't talk about their drug histories, it's only fair that you forego your federal salary until you are willing to come clean with your own drug past." The second example, the "Roll Your Own Blackout" campaign encourages citizens to protest president Bush's energy policies by participating in a global voluntary blackout on June 21st: "Light a candle to the sungod, kiss and tell, make love, tell ghost stories, do something instead of watching television, and have fun in the dark." In a few months, these memes will join the Nike Sweatshop meme as fond memories, new memes will emerge, and the process will begin anew.