Archive for October, 2011

Measuring union “klout” online

Saturday, October 29th, 2011

It’s a corporate dream come true: imagine if a company could find out exactly which customers – and potential customers – could influence others. If one could identify with precision those consumers who influence others in their buying decisions, one could make a fortune.

That’s the reasoning behind a number of new web-based projects that are basically watching all of us online, seeing what we do on Twitter and Facebook, and attempting to measure our influence.

These sites then find companies interested in knowing who are the “influencers” so they can tempt them with free samples and other perks.

But, as if often the case on the net, what was intended for one purpose can be used for an entirely different one.

Take, for example, Klout. Measuring our activity on Twitter, Facebook Linked In and other social networks, it rates every user on a scale from 0 to 100. The average rating, they say, is about 20. Super-famous celebrities can make it into the 80s or 90s.

Klout claims to measure “true reach” (how many people you influence), “amplification” (how much you influence them) and “network impact” (the influence of your network).

So, how are trade unions doing?

Oddly enough, not badly.

Topping the list of a random selection of a couple of dozen major unions are three based in the USA — the AFL-CIO (the American TUC), the Service Employees International Union, and Working America – an innovative community organizing project of the AFL-CIO. Those three are rated 70, 67 and 66.

But just below them are two British unions — UNISON with 62 followed by PCS with 61. Unite is not far behind with 58. These are quite high numbers.

Toward the very bottom of the list — though still with above-average numbers — are global union federations like the IFJ (journalists), IMF (metal workers) and IUF (food workers), with ratings from 21-29.

(The AWL rates higher than all of those, with a score of 33.)

In general the global trade union movement isn’t nearly as influential — according to Klout — as national unions. The International Trade Union Confederation, which represents 175 million workers, is rated as having less influence in social networks than LabourStart.

Unions that use the net well are considered more influential by Klout than unions that have massive numbers of members. So the tiny Industrial Workers of the World gets a high rating than the Canadian Auto Workers. But in the real world, the CAW is a far more influential group than the IWW.

Tools like Klout are going to get better, including more social networks (Linked In was only recently added). Unions will also get better about signing up their members a subscribers to their Twitter feeds and as fans of their Facebook pages. When that happens, the gap between real-world influence and online “klout” will shrink.

Back in the USSR?

Thursday, October 13th, 2011

Last month I sent out a mailing to LabourStart’s 75,000 subscribers asking people to support the struggles of striking oil workers in Kazakhstan and at a steel company in Georgia. As these were both former Soviet republics, I gave the message the subject of line “Back in the USSR?”.

I was quoting the Beatles song, of course, but I also wanted to point out that the increasing repression of independent trade unions in the post-Soviet era was a throwback to the dark days of Stalinism.

The last thing I expected was to become the target of a wave of angry emails from unrepentant Stalinists.

One writer told me, “Your picture labelled ‘Back in the USSR’ is the opposite of what it was—free education, health, cheap clothing and food. They were building a Utopia until they were sold out.”

Another said, “Contrarily to what you say … growingly the proletariat and the Soviet People want the return to the Soviet Union with the orientation of Lenin and Stalin (1917-1953).”

A third added, “This … is, frankly un-called for and out-dated Cold War bullshit … The standard of living has gone down drastically since the fall of the USSR and workers’ rights have eroded.”

There were dozens more like this. I didn’t take the time to answer them – life is too short – but I shared them with some of the senior correspondents at LabourStart. One of them, who was born and raised in the USSR, wrote that he had no nostalgia for those days.

“Workers had no rights,” he said, “beside the right to demonstrate how much they like the Politburo on May Day and enjoy CPSU propaganda. Today the elites of all those former USSR countries want to deprive our rights again. In this sense ‘back to the USSR’ is a correct description of what’s going on in Kazakhstan and Georgia. As well as in Russia, Ukraine, etc.”

Now this will be obvious to the readers of this newspaper, but apparently there are people out there, active in our unions, who believe that a Utopia was being built in the USSR until 1991, that workers had more rights under totalitarianism than they have now, and that there is a desperate craving to go back to the old system.

Who are these people? Obviously some will be old Stalinists who never understood what life was really like back in the USSR. George Galloway is probably in this category and said back in 2002, “I think the disappearance of the Soviet Union is the biggest catastrophe of my life.”

But others, I fear, may be younger people who have no idea what the Soviet Union was like and who are being exposed to a kind of revisionist history that assumes that whatever preceded today’s rotten gangster capitalism in Russia must have been much better.

One is tempted to dismiss all this as the ranting of some cranks, which in some cases it obviously is, but nostalgia for the USSR is part of the poison on the left that also leads to uncritical support for the Castro dictatorship and the Chavez regime – support that goes largely unchallenged in British unions.

We can talk all we want about what’s wrong with Cuba and Venezuela, but so long as large numbers of people in the labour movement are delusional about the Soviet Union, our work will be much harder.

Knowledge that many of us take for granted – such as the complete ban on independent trade unions and strikes in the Stalinist countries – must be shared with a new generation of activists.

And this is true not least because we cannot support our comrades on the front lines in Georgia and Kazakhstan if we have illusions about the regime that was – thankfully – overthrown there two decades ago.

Facebook is not an organising tool

Thursday, October 13th, 2011

A decade ago, it was not easy to convince some on the Left to begin using net-based tools to communicate and organise. Today, we run the risk of becoming over-reliant on some of those tools, most notably Facebook.

This is not the first time I (or others) have addressed the weaknesses of Facebook. Much of what has been written has described theoretical possibilities of things going wrong. For example, Facebook could – in theory – close down any group, page, cause or event you might set up without warning or explanation or right of appeal.

We had a case a few years ago of Facebook shutting down a group organising casino workers in one of Canada’s Atlantic provinces – simply because the owners of the casino asked them to.

But those examples were rare, and the risks seemed remote, and increasingly trade unions and campaigning organisations began to use Facebook to organise their events and activities.

In recent days, I’ve come across three concrete examples in daily life of the risks we take when we do this.

One is a Facebook group I set up for a campaigning organisation. I noticed one day that it was blocking me from adding new posts to the group’s “wall”. A message pops up headlined “Oops!” and informs me that “Something’s gone wrong. We’re working to get it fixed as soon as we can.” And it’s been that way for weeks.

I wrote to Facebook technical support to report the bug, but got no reply at all.

Not only can’t I post any new items to the group, but all the old ones have disappeared. About two years worth of weekly archived posts.

And if I want to write to all members of the group to tell them that the wall is no longer there, well, that option seems to have disappeared as well.

So I have a group with a few hundred members that I can no longer communicate with, and no place to get help.

The second example is another group, a much larger one with several thousand members. Its wall is functioning well – but I can no longer send messages to its members, or even see who they are or how many of them are members.

And again, there is no place to go for help – we don’t pay to use Facebook, and they’re under no obligation to provide any kind of support.

In both cases, I have websites and mailing lists independent of Facebook, so I can communicate with most (but not all) of these people. And those websites and mailing lists use open source tools which I can edit and control, and are backed up regularly by me.

Am I suggesting that we stop using Facebook?

Not at all. But we rely on it at our peril. We run the risk of being cut off from the very people we think we are communicating with, and not only when some employer gets angry and demands that our groups be shut down.

Sometimes the problem is simply a technical one – “oops” – but this is just as difficult to deal with.

We need to have our own tools, websites, blogs, mailing lists, and social networks, which we control and which we can back up.

That’s the easy part.

The hard part is we need to convince our audiences to use those tools, and not rely on Facebook as a way of staying in touch with us.