In defence of Facebook (sort of)

I’ve been very slack on the blogging front in recent months (blame john 2.2, who starts wailing whenever I so much as look at a keyboard), and so I’ve kept a pile of things to write about in a bit more detail, and then gradually discarded them over the months as they sunk further from topicality.

One I shouldn’t really ignore though is Eric’s railings late last year against conducting union campaigns via the good book. He has a thoughtful and provocative post on his blog (go read it now), arguing that for unions, Facebook is pretty much a waste of time. It’s a bandwagon, and one which whilst immediately seductive to unions in being easy and free, locks us into dependency on a privately owned system we might outgrow, and that might at any time arbitrarily eject us.

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.

It’s a good argument (Eric’s always are), and I don’t think any of his points are wrong, just that he may be focusing on too small a part of the picture to draw such a gloomy overall conclusion. For example, he’s right to say that if you’ve got a working community/mailing list of your own, that generally trumps a Facebook group. However, Facebook’s main asset is not so much its loose modular system (neat as that is), but its millions upon millions of users, and the links built between them.

True it is a pain to get your existing supporters to sign up and use it, especially when many are justifiably wary of the privacy record, the difficulty of getting out again, or the character of its VC backers (less “Do no evil” than “Do no evil outside business hours, excepting weekends”). But maybe we shouldn’t be looking at that, if we already have a system of our own for our nearest and dearest, and a disposable view of Facebook as a tool for making disposable collections of people you don’t yet know, but would like to.

Here are a few uses I think Facebook could have for unions, and why I reckon it still bears examination:

  • Viral potential.
    Eric does very well at running LabourStart’s regular campaigns – his mailing list of 50,000 meaning he can often achieve critical mass in a campaign without going outside his core supporters. Sometimes though, we need to reach beyond our core audiences. Take an unashamedly populist campaign like Everyone wants a new bank holiday, not just unionists. If we can turn our people into advocates for a campaign that their friends won’t have a problem signing up for, then we can hopefully extend our reach. In Facebook, a punter signing up to the campaign will be default cause a note to appear in their friends’ updates pages. That’s like running a bunch of free ads for your campaign, and ones which people immediately trust as they come from their friend.
  • Company reputation.
    Eric has pioneered the use of disruptive Google ads in union campaigning, buying up a company’s name, so that anyone searching for it can see just how naughty they’re being. Many of those companies are now posting ad pages on Facebook, for users to sign up to as a fan of their brand. It’s an interesting idea to create an advert that anyone can scrawl on, and the Writers’ Guild of America are having fun with it at the moment, calling weekend-long cyber pickets of the fan pages of particular shows. They all change their profile pic to a WGA banner, and sign up as fans, leaving messages in support of the strike on the show’s wall. Pretty soon, the show’s ad page is a mass of red and black banners and slogans.
  • Applications.
    There isn’t a killer union campaigns app for Facebook at the moment (much as I’d love you all to join for your little union badge, natch), but a quick cast around charity and political campaign apps shows some nice pointers. For example, SuperBadger is a clever app from UK Christian development charity Tear Fund. They run online actions much like Eric’s (which they call ‘badgering‘ the target), but they have done a fantastic mashup with those zombie/vampire applications your mates are always asking you to join, and I’m always ignoring (I’m firmly in the po-faced profile crowd). You take more actions, and recruit more friends to SuperBadger, and your badger grows in stature. Corny yes, but the users like it, and like the way it holds records of what they’ve done and which of their friends are badgering too. Already they have around 12,000 installations, and a discussion board with people asking what the new top level of badger will be, now that they’re close to breaking the original limits. John Edwards’ current campaign (to use a cause close to Eric’s heart) has a simple but nice profile panel, which lets people clearly brand themselves as supporters, and also shows latest videos to friends browsing supporters’ profiles). Genuine innovative thinking here (yes I know, my brain hurts too) could pay off in spades.

My own union (NUJ) are using Facebook to organise activists, and promote events to them (using Facebook’s clever RSVP user-guilting system), and have what I think is still the biggest group for any union (especially good for such a minnow as we are). I’ll admit though that this is something of an anomaly, as UK journalists are the most terrible Facebook-whores going, and it’s an easy picking ground for the NUJ (and why the Musicians’ Union prefer MySpace instead).

For most unions, this is going to be a bit hit and miss. It’s a good instant public network tool for a group of activists, but relies on them being willing to join the service to make use of, so you’ll never get something totally representative. Eric’s right to point out that you can’t get at that vital data yourself in the way you could with other group systems, so you can take it elsewhere when Facebook no longer suits. Maybe it’s more worth thinking about it in terms of building groups of people who are already Facebook users, rather than shoe-horning in your own people to a closed network.

Another downside Eric doesn’t mention (hey, here’s a free one!) is that this isn’t like a website. You can’t just make a page and leave it a month or two. Well, you can, but it won’t do you much good in most cases. With networking, like blogging, the more you put in, the more you get out, so if you’re not going to devote time to keeping your community active, you won’t necessarily get the best result. This makes it a non-starter for a whole bunch of resource-strapped organisations.

Now I’m not able to point to any great union successes here, and this is unsurprisingly a rather big flaw in my arguments against Eric’s article. A few hundred in a campaign group here, a few hundred there aren’t going to change the world, as Eric points out. But I think we’re on early days here. Give us time, and we‘ll promise to try not to get carried away, and see instead if hitching a lift on the bandwagon for a while lets us jump off it again slightly nearer where we want to get to.

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5 thoughts on “In defence of Facebook (sort of)

  1. Now I’m not able to point to any great union successes here, and this is unsurprisingly a rather big flaw in my arguments against Eric’s article. A few hundred in a campaign group here, a few hundred there aren’t going to change the world,

    I am sorry but a few hundred in a capaign can change the world . You only have to look at History to see that . For Example a on line campaign with TV and radio by the union movment of Australia Successfully brough down goverment at election. That was 20 millon people who voted. Not bad for a few hundred organizer from the Union . Small things grow to big things just like face book.

  2. True Wade, but I think we’re talking different things here. The amazing campaign in Oz was the work of hundreds of organisers, with tens of thousands of activists and a multi-million ad budget through a levy from millions of members – though it did have hundreds of offshoot activities which were small affairs that contributed to the core. What we’re seeing a lot on Facebook is campaign groups where an organiser gets a couple hundred members to join, as a kind of online petition, and it’s not having a lot of effect. You’re right about some small things growing though, and there will be ways to actively mobilise people better here that could contribute more than passive membership of small groups.

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