Bandwagons and Buzzwords: Facebook and the Unions
The new technology, they said, was going to transform the Internet forever. Instead of you having to go online and “pull” web pages to your browser, it would 'push' pages to you. In fact, it was making the web browser itself obsolete. It was such an amazing thing that Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation (the owners of Fox News) offered $450 million to buy the company. And companies, media outlets, even unions were told – you'd better get on board or you'll be left behind.
Some of you may recognize the story I'm telling – it describes something called PointCast, which most of you will never have heard of. But it, and its so-called “push technology” were the next big thing a decade ago.
Most of you will never have heard of it because like so many next big things, it fell as quickly as it rose, and its massive overvaluation turned out to be a harbinger of things to come. Three years later the dotcom bubble burst and PointCast was never heard from again.
A year after PointCast peaked, another company – an Israeli startup called Mirabilis – had developed the next next big thing. America Online (now Time Warner) snapped up the company for a mere $407 million in 1998 and its four young owners could now retire as millionaires.
Never heard of Mirabilis? Maybe you've heard of its sole product – an instant messaging client called ICQ. Or maybe not. Today ICQ is one of dozens of such products and others (such as MSN Messenger, Jabber or even Skype) seem far more popular. I wonder if anyone reading this article uses ICQ. I know that I haven't for several years.
The stories of PointCast and ICQ should be a warning to those who are willing to jump on any bandwagon and advocate the adoption of every shiny new thing on the Internet -- or else face the danger of falling behind.
There's a much more recent example that may be more familiar to you. A couple of years ago, the next big thing on the Internet was the social networking site MySpace. This time, Rupert Murdoch's company did get its hands on it, and purchased MySpace for $580 million in 2005. Shortly thereafter, the site lost much of its lustre as it became increasingly to be seen as just another arm of Murdoch's evil empire. Today MySpace is no longer seen by anyone as being particularly “cool”.
In 2005, MySpace was the next big thing. If you were serious about using the Internet, if you wanted to reach out to millions of people, you absolutely needed to be there. But not anymore.
Now it's almost 2008 and there are even more bandwagons to jump on. The latest is Facebook. Unions are being told that they need a presence on Facebook or else no one will know they exist. They need to use Facebook to mobilize thousands of people, to send a strong message to companies and governments, to grow their ranks, to make unions seem relevant to young people.
What a fantastic tool – it allows you to mobilize people online. But wait a minute – isn't this something we've been doing with websites since day one?
It is, but here's the difference. Let's say I set up a group on Facebook to tell the Burmese government to stop crushing democracy. I'll get tens of thousands of people to sign up to join my group. And I'll announce – we've got a giant Facebook group. We've got all these committed people. We're practically a mass movement.
But hang on – in what sense is a Facebook group a “group”? How does it differ from a simple online petition? The answer to the latter question is that it doesn't differ – it's just another way of doing an online petition. A worse way.
If I set up my online campaign on Facebook I can, in theory, email all members of my group. Not really, though. What I can do is to send them messages through Facebook – not to their actual email addresses, but force them to logon to Facebook to read my message. Even if they do this, it adds an additional couple of steps for them to follow.
If my Facebook group is over 1,000 names, I can't email them – and our experience has been that even with groups of under 1,000 names, the email doesn't always seem to work.
What you're doing by outsourcing your campaigning to Facebook is growing their company, giving them direct access to your supporters and members. What's the alternative? Do-it-yourself online campaigns where you retain the information on who has sent off protest messages.
LabourStart has campaigned this way for years. Every time we do a campaign, we collect the emails, names and unions of participants. If they've given us permission, we've added them to our mailing list and they receive our weekly email newsletter. Our list has grown from 3,000 names five years ago to 51,000 names today due to these campaigns.
Imagine if Facebook had existed five years ago and if we had tried to campaign using it. We wouldn't have a mailing list today and we certainly wouldn't be able to send out more than 50,000 emails a week.
Facebook is a poor replacement for a real online campaigning strategy for unions. And it makes us vulnerable to the whims of those who own the company. Last month, Microsoft invested $246 million in Facebook. It sees Facebook the same way that Murdoch saw MySpace (or PointCast) – as a way to make money.
And unions that have tried to use Facebook have not always had such great experiences. Earlier this year, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) tried to organize casino workers in Nova Scotia, Canada. They used Facebook and were shocked to find that their Facebook account had been closed. When they asked for an explanation, they were told that they were an organization, not an individual, and weren't allowed to have an account. (They replied that companies were allowed to have Facebook accounts, but this had no effect.)
A union in South Korea using a similar system was engaged in an organizing campaign collecting details of potential members all of which was lost when the company decided to shut them down.
The lesson I learn from all this is that the best tools are the ones we wield ourselves – and that the best way for unions to campaign online is not to jump on the latest bandwagon, but to spend the time, effort and money to create powerful online campaigning systems ourselves.