One of the stranger things being said about Barack Obama’s election victory is that part of the reason for his success was his use of the Internet.
Obama, we are told, ‘got it’. John McCain did not. The young guy was clued in, and old geezer couldn’t use a keyboard.
Not only did the pundits say this, but the Obama campaign itself used McCain’s inability to send an email in one of its campaign ads. It was a way of saying that McCain was out of touch.
Much has been made of the fact that Obama raised a tremendous amount of money using the Internet, and that his website made use of cutting edge technology – including social networks like Facebook – very effectively.
The danger of all this is that campaigners are going to believe it is true. And my concern is that unions are going to buy into this as well.
Ask people what they think makes for a great union website. Some will say – keep it fresh with loads of new content. Others will add – make it interactive. Add a mailing list. Make sure the site is accessible for disabled people. Use a content management system. Don’t use Flash. Do add a search bar.
That’s good advice, but in my experience setting up three websites for three different trade unions in London this summer, I think there’s one thing often neglected when we talk about the difference between success and failure. I’m talking about training.
This article is my regular monthly column in Industrial Worker, the newspaper of the Industrial Workers of the World.
As anyone who has done any kind of global solidarity work will tell you, the number one problem we face is the problem of language. It’s not a problem companies face. When McDonald’s wants to summon all its managers from around the world to attend a meeting, the company decides what language everyone will speak – English.
Unions can’t do that. We believe in cultural and linguistic diversity and equality. So instead, international union meetings are incredibly expensive events due in large part to the need for simultaneous translation. And being expensive, they are held infrequently.
Those of us trying to use email as a campaigning tool are running into some serious problems these days. Getting heard over all the background noise is becoming more difficult. Inboxes are filling up rapidly. At best we skim, and don’t read, the hundreds of messages we receive every week. And that’s the messages that actually get through our spam filters.
Unions need to find a way to cut through that noise and reach their members. Members need an alternative to the spam-filled, overflowing inbox. Everyone needs messages to be brief and to the point.
Twitter may offer a solution.
With gas prices soaring and food prices at a new high, this seems an odd time to raise the subject of things getting cheaper. But in one small corner of our consumer universe, one commodity that used to be owned only by very rich has suddenly, almost overnight, become very cheap indeed.
I’m speaking about ultra-portable, ultra-light laptop computers.
A year ago, if you wanted to buy a truly portable computer, you’d be looking at a Sony Vaio, for example, weighing in at a couple of pounds. And it would have cost you something like $3,000. Even Apple’s latest laptop, the MacBook Air, costs $1,800 in its cheapest configuration.
But in the last six months a new breed of tiny, powerful laptops has become available for $400.
A 90% drop in the price of a tool that can be so useful to unions is something that should make us sit up and take notice.
A few years ago, LabourStart starting featuring a photo of the week (sometimes, of the day), just to liven up its front page a bit. As its editor, I’d see photos of strikes or picket lines or jailed union activists and put them in a little corner of the front page.
As with most things, after a while it became more work than I had time for, so I asked one of our senior correspondents, Derek Blackadder from Canada, to take on the job of ensuring that we had fresh photos on our front page, at least once every week.
Little did I know that Derek would turn this little project into what may be the largest collection of union photos on the web.
Back in 1974, I was a student in Cornell University’s labor relations program working during the summer for a union in New York City. The union’s education director (today its president) suggested to me that I quit university and go to work in a factory where I could organize workers. That was the way to get involved in the trade union movement, he told me. I pondered the offer — it would have involved moving to Indiana — and eventually decided not to do it.
Thanks to the Internet, that scenario is no longer possible.
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.
Several months ago, I was approached by a friend with a request that LabourStart launch an online campaign in support of local care home workers in the area where I live – north London, England.
“We don’t do local,” I said. LabourStart specializes in global campaigns in support of workers’ rights around the globe. A local campaign in support of a couple of hundred workers was out of the question.
A decade ago, South Korean workers used the Internet to produce live reports (including video) about their general strikes. At the time, they were way ahead of the rest of the world in maximizing the use of the new communications technology. They still are.