It used to be that large companies could pretty much do as they pleased in their ongoing quest to maximize profits and please shareholders. It was only when the harm done to workers, consumers, the environment or a firm's own self image got particularly bad that anything changed. This isn't to say that all big companies do bad things, but some do and in the industrial age, they could often get away with it pretty easily.

Well, the industrial age has given way to the information age and the balance of power is shifting further and further toward consumers, especially those with actively Web-connected lives. For a telling example, look no further than the recent fiasco surrounding GoDaddy and their now former support for the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA).

It was only 24 hours after last month's Reddit-fueled rebellion against GoDaddy that the company reversed its stance on SOPA and began calling customers, begging them to stay. If the gleeful, videotaped slaughter of an African elephant and notoriously sexist marketing campaigns weren't enough to tarnish the company's image in any meaningful way, public support for controversial legislation would apparently do the trick.

GoDaddy could have weathered some Twitter name-calling, but when customers started transferring domain names to other providers, the company was forced to publicly reexamine its position on SOPA. In just two days, more than 37,000 domains were transferred from GoDaddy to competing providers. That's a mere drop in the bucket amidst the 50 million domains currently registered with GoDaddy, but if allowed to fester, the company's latest PR disaster could have cost it some serious revenue.

The Crowd or the Mob? Either Way, Its Voices Are Loud and Clear

The lessons of the incident were not lost on other companies, who have begun to pull support for SOPA. It's unlikely that the RIAA and other industry groups will have a change of heart, but companies more closely aligned to the tech industry, such as Nintendo, Electronic Arts and Sony, saw what happened to GoDaddy and have since reversed their stance as well.

The episode was an instructive one for GoDaddy, but it also speaks volumes about the power the Web and social media hands to everyday people. No longer are things strictly top-down, even if real power and wealth are still largely concentrated among a relative few. In the past, a company of GoDaddy's size could support whatever screwed up and backwards legislation it wanted. Today, if such a move is perceived to strike at the heart of the Internet, the Internet will strike back.

This is not the first example of the power of the crowd. Things got noisy enough on sites like ComcastMustDie.com for the cable behemoth to take a more proactive role in online community management and customer service. As many subscribers will attest, the company still has a long way to go, but it has made progress. You can just about manage to hit the "Tweet" button after typing an angry anti-Comcast sentiment on Twitter before getting a response from one of the company's many social media managers. This may or may not lead to a satisfactory resolution in each case, but at least the company is paying attention. That was something they didn't have to do on quite this scale before.

But Is This a Good Thing?

A recent post on Gawker makes the argument that this phenomenon is actually a bad thing, resulting in a power trip for the Reddit community and leading to some less-than-ideal consequences down the line.

"While great for short bursts of fundraising or getting out a timely message, purely digital mobs like Reddit or the hacktivist collective Anonymous are not well-suited for thoughtful, sustained participation in the political process," writes Adrian Chen. "Fuck the "Wisdom of the crowd." The thinking of the internet hive mind is shallow and frantic, scrambling from one outrage to the next."

To be sure, some of what goes on amongst the Reddit is questionable and not every member of that particular community has their facts straight at all times. But they're far from the only player in these scenarios, even if they do often provide a solid launch pad for digital protest campaigns. What's more remarkable is what the architecture of the Web generally, as well as its social tools, are beginning - yes, only beginning - to enable.

This isn't to suggest that the Internet can solve all of our problems and lead to some utopian, ultra-democratic society. Indeed, most companies won't reverse their stance on SOPA, only the ones that are uniquely threatened by the ire of loud, Web-based communities. Ultimately, the online outcry could fail to block the legislation itself.