Facebook – dangerous for unions?

Eric Lee of LabourStart thinks so.

Take a listen to his podcast here:

Facebook is the most widely used social networking website in the world, with 400 million active users. Because it reaches such a large audience, it seems important for trade unions to use. For Eric, the biggest danger is that you have no control of what happens to your data. He compares it to Geocities, which was a free web service, until Yahoo shut it down, deleting 38 million pages. Who controls your data on Facebook? Anything you upload becomes their property, not yours – so all your friends and lists of activists and campaign details exist at the whim of a company that is there to make profit. Facebook has deactivated trade union accounts in the future, and will do so again.

I have seen lots of very successful Facebook campaigns by trade unions. The benefit of Facebook is that just about everyone is on it, it’s easy to use and it doesn’t require much of a time commitment: it just takes one click to share information with your network.

I have seen trade union organisers form groups like “Union in Acme Widgets now!”, and use it as a successful way to interact with workers in the company they are trying to organise, and discuss workplace issues. They used Facebook’s search function to find employees of “Acme Widgets”, and invited them to join the group and to invite their colleagues. The group was used to encourage discussion about workplace issues, to publicise any meetings (by using the ‘events’ feature on Facebook) and to publish any correspondence between the company and the union.

A really good is example is this Facebook group, in support of CSAAWU, a radical, grassroots trade union of farm workers in South Africa. They represent very marginalised workers, and are largely ignored by the rest of the labour movement and the government, who have a World Cup and other issues to worry about. But they desperately need some support and solidarity: Facebook makes this easy for them.

But there are serious problems with Facebook too: it’s very dangerous to rely on it for organising. The most obvious pitfall is lack of privacy. While the organisers I have worked with experienced no negative consequences of using Facebook, if the employer had been so minded (and tech literate) it would have been an easy matter to access the group, identify the trade union activists and discipline them, possibly for breach of corporate IT policy, or for bringing the company into disrepute. Facebook has attracted a tremendous amount of criticism due to its privacy settings, which by default publicly expose large amounts of information about users.

Take a look at Your Open Book to see just how shocking Facebook’s privacy settings are.

Facebook helps you connect and share with the people in your life. Whether you want to or not.

There are other,  less serious problems too: it’s a distraction, and a time suck. People spend time on Facebook, but tend to be quickly distracted by whatever turns up in their friend’s newsfeeds. There are serious doubts about how much of what happens in Facebook translates into any kind of action. People might sign up to the event you’re organising, but there’s no guarantee they’ll turn up on the day: Facebook operates on a strange, superficial level where nothing that happens beyond the screen means very much at all.

I think there are major philosophical problems with Facebook, the way it takes the complexity of the world and reduces it to  post-modern “like/share” equation. What will the long term impact be on our thinking? Will it make it more difficult for us to focus and engage with serious issues, or will we develop a Pavlovian response, clicking ‘next’ to see the next image in the human zoo whenever we’re confronted with something we don’t like?

So how should trade unions use social networks to get our message across to people?

I would say careful use of Facebook is important, because so many people are there. But you can’t rely on it. We need to create our own networks. UnionBook is a good place to start. It’s secure, private, non-corporate, and run on the Open Source Elgg social networking platform. It isn’t as user friendly as Facebook yet because it’s still in its infancy, but I’d recommend creating a profile and taking a look around. I have found it really useful to network with union activists from around the world.

Also, it’s worth keeping an eye on Diaspora, a next generation social network that keeps you in control of all your data using encryption keys. It hasn’t been released yet, but when it does, the results may be interesting. It’s worth noting that the only reason Facebook isn’t private is that they make money mining your data and passing it on to advertisers.

All the more reason to defend the Internet as a non-corporate global Commons.

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  1. Pingback: 2010 in review « Cyberunions

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