The blog of Eric Lee - web design and internet consulting for the trade union movement.

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.


Interesting article Eric. I think your scepticism about the prevailing Facebook craze is well-founded.

In addition to the points that you make in the article (why would you give Facebook your address book/subscriber list in order to sell advertising - not to mention allowing Facebook to use their control over which campaigns they permit on their site to proscribe your campaigning limits?) there are also other downsides to unions putting their campaigning eggs in the Facebook basket.

One of the key functions of union solidarity campaigns is to improve communication links between campaigners. This is what social networking purports to offer through sites such as Facebook. However, such communications are not private to members of the group in Facebook.

One example of how this can be counter-productive is a solidarity campaign with workers for a rail infrastructure contracting company called 'Metronet' who took strike action some months ago on the London Underground. A Facebook group was set up by some of the strike committee to allow rapid dissemination of information. Within days it had been used by Metronet managers to spread false information and usage dropped off when it became clear that the company were snooping on communications on the group list.

That's a real downside to sub-contracting your social network to Facebook rather than owning your own means of communication.

Having said that, I don't think unions should throw the social networking baby out with the bathwater. There just has to be a better way of using the theory.

In principle, social networking should offer a qualitative improvement on simple website plus email campaigns, which by their nature are centralised and 'top down'. Social networking websites like Facebook allow members to communicate laterally rather than just through a response to a central point. If a union were to harness the social network model and the Facebook technology by applying it to their own membership database it could mark a breakthrough in union campaigning and communication strategies.

Hi Eric

Thanks for a informative article on the use of Facebook. I too tried it, set up a page and have since discontinued use of the site. I found the site to be cumbersome. If I receive a message from you or anyone else I want to access the message with one click not a series of clicks which frankly for me was irritating. For those using this as a tool to organize remember folks like it simple and easy to access. Keep up the good work Eric.
Laura Neil

Absolutely, when you use Bill Gates's My Space you are revealing your union membership to people quite capable of destroying your union, or your PAC, or anything you put on these corporate intermediaries. Don't jump on any bandwagon, be left behind, you might just survive.

While I agree you shouldn't put all your eggs in the Facebook basket, it has got a dynamic for campaigning that is much more contagious than anything else I've come across.

I don't understand the reservations about messaging via Facebook - any Facebook user can set their account so that the full text of messages posted on Facebook are emailed to them, so they are not forced to log onto FB every time they get a message.

You can also see your group members email addresses on their profiles if they choose to display them. OK, a bit laborious for a mass email - but you can always ask your FB group members to log their email addresses on your own site.

I accept that becoming a member of a FB group is often no more significant in its own right than signing a petition. The difference is what it allows you to do with those activists subsequently.

I do worry about the power of Facebook or, through them, other corporate interests to close down a group. Groups and their members should put pressure on FB to guarantee reasonable access and not be subject to arbritary restraints on use.

I don't think it it's a question of whether you use your own website or a platform like Facebook to develop your online activism - networking sites should be used to build and enhance your own online database.

Hi Eric, This follows on from the personal email I sent you earlier which linked into these issues. O.K. so we have learned some things the hard way when it comes to utilising the social networking sites. We need to take full advantage by seeing them for what they are and viewing them as a portal or interface, a publicity vehicle to welcome and inform young people (mainly the younger crew but even this is changing rapidly and including a wider age range). We could use the social networking sites as initial frontline contact sites. In the same way as you may spend time informing and sharing with a newcomer in the street, the next stage can be to invite the person to join a group of likeminded people in another venue. If people from the social networks are interested or inspired they could go and choose to join separate lists or closed lists which have particular issues as their themes or subjects and where they can participate in debate and/or organise.
I have some experience of using a closed list which addresses the confidentiality issue. I say “address” because it’s obvious that if someone really wants to trespass they will find a way. A closed list relies on one or more “Gate-keepers” whose job it is to check out newcomers and add their email addresses to the system. I’ve tried this, but only on a Union branch level and it’s a good way for pooling information, learning from each other and organising. You need Web space to do it and unfortunately the Unions are too technology and confidentiality phobic at present, to allow their web space to be used. Therefore we used someone’s personal web space to launch it. If all branches allowed their activists to join a closed list it would provide a vital communications link between them. For example, it can be useful as a group method of mentoring new reps. Someone writes about a problem issue and everyone on the list receives it. They can then email the list with their experience and advice. So, it’s a way reps can build on information already gathered by their colleagues through experience instead of having to continually reinvent the wheel. It could also be a way of pulling activists together and enabling them to feel more of a sense of solidarity especially now they are spread over increasingly large geographical areas.
I believe we do need to continue to use the social networking sites but in selective ways, limiting the potential damage whilst taking advantage of the obvious benefits in more controlled methods. Regards, Naomi

Hi Eric

Good article. I used to quite like Facebook, but a recent article in the Guardian has changed all that. As you've indicated, joining Facebook just adds to the number of members that the company can contact, not your ogranisation, and the people behind Facebook are not fans of trade unions.

Read on...

With friends like these ...
Facebook has 59 million users - and 2 million new ones join each week. But you won't catch Tom Hodgkinson volunteering his personal information - not now that he knows the politics of the people behind the social networking site