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

Alternatives to Facebook

Unions are increasingly turning to tools like Facebook. But there is also a growing awareness of the problems with such social networks. Groups and causes one sets up on Facebook do not belong to you. Facebook can, and does, close them down at will. Some union organisers, like Canada's Derek Blackadder, have found that being too energetic in building one's own personal network can get you thrown off Facebook as well.

Still, the idea of a social networking website where one can link up with friends and build groups with little effort is appealing. That's why finding alternatives to Facebook is so important.

But before looking at a couple of these, it's important to note why unions should continue to have a presence on Facebook. The main reason is that Facebook is where the people are. Two months ago, it crossed the threshold of 100 million members. There are tens of millions of working people there, many of them young workers, making Facebook fertile ground for organisers. But Facebook may not be the best solution for unions that want social networks for members and activists.

Two Facebook alternatives have emerged in recent months, both with bizarre names and each with its own strengths and weaknesses.

The more mature of the two is Ning (, founded in 2004, which allows anyone to create their own social network for free. By April 2008, Ning claimed to be hosting 250,000 social networks. Several unions have already adopted Ning including one for union members at Qantas in Australia.

The good news about Ning is that it frees you from the shackles of Facebook and allows unions to create uncensored space they control - with all the positive things about social networking websites thrown in.

The bad news is that Ning is a service just like Facebook. It is not software you download. This means that a union social network hosted by Ning can be closed down by Ning -- and the company itself can go bust, which could wipe out all 250,000 of those networks in a single stroke.

A better solution would be software that allowed unions to create their own Facebook-like social networks. This is where Elgg comes in. Elgg was developed by a British company to create social networks on your own web servers -- networks which you own and control and which are not vulnerable to the company's fortunes. In other words, social networks as software, not as a service.

For unions that already have a strong web presence and know what they are doing, Elgg starts to sound like an interesting idea. Its great weakness is that it's relatively new, and has a very small user base at the moment. The software works, but has a bit of a rough feel. It's not yet clear that Elgg is ready for prime time.

Nevertheless, LabourStart working together with others is experimenting with Elgg and hopes to announce a union alternative to Facebook sometime before the end of 2008. If we can get rid of some of the bugs and smooth the rough edges, this might be exactly what we're looking for.