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Apr. 13 2009 - 10:50 am | 12 views | 1 recommendation | 6 comments

How The Student Loan Bailout Movement Went Viral

Facebook, Inc.

A Facebook group took the student loan bailout movement to the viral level

One of the hottest bailout topics of late is the idea of forgiving Americans’ student loan debt. The phrase, “student loan bailout,” yields over 2,000 hits over the past month on mainstream media websites and over 8,000 hits on blogs.

There are some who are passionate about clearing the books for indebted young professionals making less than $150,000, like my co-editor at Above The Law, Elie Mystal. Their argument: The government did it for the banks and auto companies. Why not the young, desperate, and over-educated?

Those opposed to the idea, like Jacob Sullum, the senior editor of Reason, believe in a culture of responsibility, as he puts it: “[P]eople who get into serious trouble with their student loans are responsible for their predicaments.”

These arguments address the morality of debt and borrowing, rather than the actual impact that student debt forgiveness would have on the economic crisis. I’ll leave the discussion of the morality of debt to the communists and the free marketers, and the nitty, gritty balance sheet details to those with financial expertise, like the Christian Science Monitor’s Brendan Conway. What I’m interested in is how the student loan bailout movement got traction and achieved its current virality, spreading across news and blog sites like a virtual wildfire across a digital California forestland.

There appear to be two primary founders of the movement: New York attorney Robert Applebaum, a 35-year-old with mounds of law school debt, and Alan Michael Collinge, author of the recently-released book “The Student Loan Scam: The Most Oppressive Debt in U.S. History – and How We Can Fight Back”. (Sullum tore it apart in a Wall Street Journal book review here.)

Collinge founded StudentLoanJustice.org back in 2005 to address predatory student loan lending. He charts his impact in terms of media coverage and legislative happenings here. He’s done tours across the country, talked to politicians (notably Hillary Clinton) to get them on board for the Student Borrower Bill of Rights, and garnered impressive media coverage. But his mission originally was to achieve fairer lending practices, not wiping debts from the books. It was Robert Applebaum who took the movement to the next level. Applebaum’s name has twenty times the number of Google news hits in the last month as Collinge has.

Applebaum, with close to $100K in debt from Fordham Law School,  started the Facebook group Cancel Student Loan Debt to Stimulate the Economy at the end of January, and he hit a nerve.  Just a week after the group was founded, Jon Chattman at the Huffington Post did a feature on it. And now, a little over two months later, the group is closing in on 200,000 members. Chattman’s article notes that a similar group was founded by Kevin Bartoy a week before Applebaum, but that one did not take off in the same way. His creation has just 30,000 members, and Bartoy has now been co-opted by Applebaum, listed as an “officer” in Applebaum’s Facebook group.

So how did Applebaum viralize the movement?

I sent him a Facebook message and this is what he had to say:

Going viral was as big a surprise to me as anyone!  This all really started by my writing a simple essay out of frustration with the bailout debate and news of giant bonuses, lavish vacations and office redecorations at companies that took TARP funds.  Not being a blogger, I decided to post my essay to a Facebook group instead.  If I was a blogger, chances are, 10 people would have read it and moved on with their lives and that would have been the end of it.  Thanks to Facebook, however, it took a different path.  After initially creating the group, I sent invitations to join to my nearly 300 “friends” (at the time) and slowly, some joined.  By the end of the first week or so, I had gotten nearly 1000 people to join somehow…

About a week after starting the group, Jon Chattman, the one who wrote the piece for the HuffPo, joined the group and then wrote me to ask if he could help spread the word by writing about it for HuffPo.  He emailed me some questions, I answered and he then posted his piece.  That is when things started to really pick up steam.  Bloggers from all over picked up on Jon’s story. . .people started joining the group in droves.  Then I started getting contacted by other journalists and bloggers, wanting to interview me about the idea.  To this day, I haven’t solicited a single bit of publicity – everything that has been written about this group and proposal has been the result of the reporter contacting me.

Applebaum believes he was successful where  Bartoy wasn’t because his group was founded on an analytical and well-written essay, whereas other groups simply proposed the concept without arguments to support it. That certainly helped, as did his tapping into a wave of anger over institutional bailouts and into the financial frustration being felt by so many.

But the real boost came from the HuffPo’s Chattman discovering the group– he told me (also via Facebook) that he  “stumbled upon it.” Facebook offers the advantage of pairing movements instantly with faces and personalities, and a sense of the measure of support for the movement, based on the number of followers. Thus our conversations can quickly spiral out infinitely into the ether, especially if you have a lot of  “friends.” While Collinge had to board a bus, travel the country, and meet with legislators to try to effect change, Applebaum simply came up with an interesting idea, and then clicked “create group” and “invite friends” to become the face of the movement.

Student debt and defaults surge [Christian Science Monitor]
‘Student Loan Nightmare’: ‘Where Is Our Bailout?’ [Reason]
Student Loan Bailout. Just Do It. [Above The Law]
Forgiving Student Loan Debt Would Stimulate Economy [Huffington Post]


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  1. collapse expand

    I’m thankful that I graduated from college and consolidated loans with my wife when we did. Our interest rate is slightly below average inflation, so we’re feeling good about our situation.

    However, we knew exactly what we were getting ourselves into going to an expensive private university. We knew we’d owe, so I’m not a supporter of this movement. But I wouldn’t turn down the $ either. The entitlement factor is what has concerns me most about this “bailout” movement.

    I know your post was about how/why it went viral, so I believe the generational aspect was most important. Many people in the 18-35 age range have college debt and I’d imagine a great deal of them also use Facebook.

  2. collapse expand

    I can’t claim to have scrolled through the photos of all 176,000+ members of the Facebook group. But based on those that I have perused, I do think it’s safe to say that people in the 35+ age bracket are in the minority.

  3. collapse expand
    J Xavier

    Very well written article.

    I am not surprised that a movement to lessen the
    amount of money somebody has to pay towards there student loans has gained great popularity and support. The probability of this actually happening has not increased one iota in the mean time. There is a greater chance that Pres. Obama will become an avid skier.

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