For a lot of unions, online organising starts and ends with Facebook. Many union communicators are fairly uncritical of Facebook, and seem to think it’s important to get people to ‘like’ your union’s Facebook page. Clearly Facebook is important, because many of your members are there. But Facebook is not a neutral space. As Jonathan Franzen eloquently writes in the New York Times,
A related phenomenon is the transformation, courtesy of Facebook, of the verb “to like” from a state of mind to an action that you perform with your computer mouse, from a feeling to an assertion of consumer choice.
It’s an excellent article that deserves to be read in its entirety. It questions our embrace of techno-consumerism, and asks what it means for love, passion and genuine engagement with the world. If this is too philosophical for you, consider some of the practical problems:
- Privacy. The problems with Facebook’s privacy are well documented. There’s no way that you, as a campaigner, can guarantee the security of your members’ and supporters’ info.
- Political pressure. Political campaign pages that are too controversial get taken down by Facebook. The ideology of Facebook is to promote consumer choice. They are happy to provide politics as an option for political consumption, but anything that seriously challenges power is removed. If all your contacts are on your Facebook page, you could lose your entire campaign.
- Conversions to action. OK, so people like your Facebook page. But what does this mean in the real world? Are they going to turn up to a meeting or rally? Are they going to write to an elected politician on a union issue? Or will they continue exercising consumer choice with Pavlovian clicking? This is an issue with all social media, but I think it’s worse with Facebook, which seems to especially encourage a distracting, discursive experience.
- What are you promoting? Are you promoting your union, or Facebook? By asking people to ‘like’ you on Facebook, you’re suggesting that Facebook is a suitable platform for political engagement, and a good place for trade unionists to meet. You need to think about whether you want to do that.
Despite the popularity of Facebook, many people don’t use it. I am not on Facebook, for what I believe are very good reasons. I find it extremely frustrating when I get invited to participate in a campaign – by visiting a Facebook page. Often there’s no other way to engage. It is extremely bad practice to create content that only users of a particular service can access, and it leads to a ‘splinternet’, with different communities inhabiting different services.
Despite the above, I believe it is important to have a presence on Facebook, simply because of the power it gives you to reach people. If you are going to create a Facebook page for your union, Alex White has some pointers here. But I think that while you should use Facebook, you should be encouraging your members away from the site and onto places that are controlled by your union or campaign. Unions need to develop user-friendly campaign websites – like this and this, for instance -though they’d be improved if they allowed people to engage.
Encourage your members to share your own content on Facebook, by all means. There are Facebook share buttons at the bottom of this post, and Facebook drives a lot of traffic to this website. But if Cyberunions existed on Facebook only, we’d be restricting ourselves to a particular audience, and encouraging people to join Facebook if they were interested in our ideas.
Control your own data. Set up your own website, and use social media to promote it.