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Better to light a single candle ...

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Two weeks ago, America Online began to dismantle its Internet access business. It was a momentous decision for the company that was probably influenced, at least a little, by a young man from the Bronx.

Vincent Ferrari, 30, works for a cell phone company. He's also an active blogger. Two months ago, Ferrari decided to cancel his AOL account. He'd heard about AOL's high-pressure customer retention tactics, so on a hunch, he recorded the call.

John, the AOL customer service rep, didn't disappoint. He insisted that Ferrari keep the account. Ferrari had to repeat "Cancel the account" 15 times in five minutes before John gave in. The recording shows how not to treat a customer.

On Tuesday, June 20, Ferrari posted the recording on his blog. He also sent an e-mail to the consumer-advocacy site Consumerist.com, which ran an article under the headline "The best thing we have ever posted."

That's when all hell broke loose.

Within an hour, Ferrari's Web server crashed from the crush of more than 200,000 visitors. The next day, with servers restored, he posted a link to the phone call on digg.com, a popular social networking site. The servers crashed again.

On Saturday, the New York Post picked up the story. On Sunday, The New York Times did, also. Ferrari's servers crashed again. Then, TV networks called. On Tuesday, Vincent Ferrari was a guest on "Today," which played a three-minute clip of the call. "How did you remain so polite?" an amazed Matt Lauer asked. On July 14, Ferrari was interviewed on "Nightline."

There were more than 25 media calls in all; Ferrari lost count. More than 1,000 people posted comments to his blog, most critical of AOL. Dozens of copies of the recording turned up on other sites, along with thousands of additional comments from angry AOL customers, many venting frustration with AOL's customer service practices. It's hard to know how many people heard the recording, but it was certainly in the tens of millions.

On July 19, Consumerist posted an alleged AOL retention manual, showing scripts and flow charts for heading off customer cancellations. Two weeks later, AOL began to dismantle the group.

AOL remained largely quiet during the affair. It called the Ferraro incident "inexcusable" and said it fired the rep. A spokeswoman said the decision to shut down the Internet access business had nothing to do with the affair.

That's probably correct, mostly. But it's hard to believe a company could withstand an outpouring of customer anger like that without making some changes.

It used to be that an unhappy customer told 10 friends. Today, he or she tells 10 million. AOL was a victim in this case, but really a victim of its own practices. Vincent Ferrari lit a match, and thousands of angry customers turned it into a conflagration. Such is the remarkable multiplicative power of social networks.

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