How do you solve a problem like Blackadder?

Remember Derek? 3,000 Facebook unionists came together to get our Canadian pal reinstated in the good book, after he was banned for making friends too quickly, whilst trying to evaluate Facebook for unions and campaigners.

Well, now he’s out on his cyber-ear again. He was kicked this time, apparently with no hope of reinstatement as his account has been totally deleted, because he’d answered too many messages of support (not sent messages, just answered ones he’d been sent by friends). And it opens up a whole can of worms for unionists and campaigners.

This was actually a little while back now, and we’ve not been shouting about it, mainly as he doesn’t want back in, and is relishing actually having a little free time again. He’s threatened to ‘kick my butt’ if I get him reactivated, and as he’s coming over to the UK next week, I’m not too inclined to test this until I know he’s safely back on the plane.

Facebook is a great product. It doesn’t do anything the web can’t do better, sure, but its genius is that raises the floor so that anyone can do this kind of stuff, not just those of us who are crack coders. Anyone can set up an extranet. Anyone can do social bookmarking. Anyone can run mailing lists, or do viral marketing. All in one place. It’s a kind of AOL 2.0 – where a company adds value to the current state of the web by simplifying the opportunities out there with a walled garden that’s a common experience for a large number of people – Except of course AOL is union 😉

It’s tempting to look at 2.0 services and think they’re all hippies, with Wikipedia-style volunteers obsessively unpicking all the problems that crop up, just because they care. Not so though, and Facebook is a hard-nosed business, with proper VCs who need new yachts and all that. They want lower overheads, so they run a customer services department with only 100 staff, that’s 650,000:1 – kind of like Leeds City Council having one employee.

Facebook is a product that we buy with our attention on the ads they show. And hardly anyone clicks on the ads, so we’re getting a *lot* of product for the revenue we create for them. This means the value of each user is tiny in isolation, and given they have 65 million actives (yes, actives), it’s a simple equation that it’s much cheaper to lose those a few customers rather than spend 15 mins of staff time on moderation.

Now how is this relevant for unions?

Facebook (and services of its ilk) is extremely attractive to unions for three reasons:

  1. It’s free. Unions can’t afford this kind of stuff themselves. Not the actual features of the community – you can do much of this with Drupal or similar – but the work in running it. If Facebook can’t fund customer service, how are unions going to, short of setting up a whole new company of their own? Facebook take away the hassles of the service (such as it is), the hosting, and some of the legal liability. In return unions pay nothing. This is a good thing.
  2. It’s basic. We can understand this stuff. Being honest most campaigners and organisers aren’t geeks, and we wouldn’t be able to do this stuff if there weren’t tools like Facebook that provide a channel for our imagination to work within, and simple-clicky options to set up whatever we want within reason. This opens up networking to branches, locals, activists, and staffer outside the comms/IT teams. This is a good thing.
  3. It’s huge. Everyone is on Facebook. Your gran is on Facebook (I know, I poked her…). Your members are on Facebook, and it’s much easier to persuade them to engage within a platform they already like than to bring them to your own platform and train them to like it. Size also means viral potential. Unions have millions of members, but they’re the only people we talk to. All of them (well most of them) have friends, and those friends are not in unions. When a unionist Facebooks their union in some way, their mates see it too – we extend our reach to new people, and new people are new growth. This is also a good thing.

So why am I so down on it?

Unions and campaign groups are power communicators. Crises pop up every now and then, and there’s a scrabble to grow, share and organise. A union organiser wants to network in a dispute, and they have to reach out to as many of their members as possible in a short period.

So customer service and moderation at Facebook are done by robots. Derek simply tripped some switches (which Facebook helpfully don’t quantify publicly) entirely innocently and the robot turned him off, in case he was actually a naughty spammer or hacker, and about to get Facebook a bad rep with other users. It took lots of yelling to get the attention of humans onto his case.

This will happen again with other people, and we can’t yell that loud every time. Worse, if it happens mid-dispute, the union concerned will lose their strongest resource at a time they need it most. There are other examples, like the SEIU campaign which set up as a person rather than a group or page, and got deleted. They were in contravention of the TOS, sure, and there’s no breach of faith here, but it would have been nice were there flexibility to be a little more charitable to people who’d made a mistake and were now in the middle of a campaign.

Of course it’s not just a Facebook issue, and could well happen on other networks – It’s just that Facebook is the one that it’s happened on so far. Also as paying advertisers are worth more to the networks than their individual users, could this possibly colour decisions made on conflicts of interest between corporate and campaign issues? (SEIU pointed out at the time of their ejection that many companies were able to continue doing what they’d been banned from Facebook for, and there’s an ominous “advocating against any individual, group, or organization” clause in Second Life’s new ToS)

99% of unionists and union campaigns are going to be fine here, but what if you’re one of the others? Also unions are in it for the long haul. If we’re going to invest in something, it makes sense for that effort to be transferable if we need it. If a company goes bust or just unfashionable, and we want to move to the next one, can we?

So I think a shopping list for an ideal third party social network for union organisers to piggyback would include:

  • The ability to take out all the data you need if you want to leave the provider. Suppose they turn evil, or just go out of business. How does a group keep the data that they and their members have worked so hard to build up? And if you can, is it in a form that will save time and effort in rebuilding? At very least you need some way to contact people if it all goes t*ts up, and let them know where they should be going now instead.
  • All the techy support taken care of for us, but some kind of partnership on moderation of our own people. If we can step in to vouch for people like Derek, we could help the network run more smoothly. This would probably mean some way of linking together those members that are under our wing as unionists.
  • The ability to link easily in and out of Facebook and its ilk, to make the best of both worlds – wider marketing potential and safer activist networking.
  • A nice unionised business for us to patronise of course 🙂

There’s a sliding scale though, from the “business”-critical stuff around union organising, over to the more “marketing” angle of broader union campaigns. For the latter, nobody can beat Facebook, and I think that even if unions have to leave Facebook for organising activists around their union work, we still can’t ignore its huge potential for reaching out to ordinary members and the general public on more populist campaigns and recruitment drives (hint: install this Facebook app).

That’s not even touching on some of the stuff that unions would find immensely valuable but utterly impossible, such as verifying people as members, and excluding unsavouries like unionbusters or trolls from getting our members into trouble over sensitive discussions.

So what’s next?

Well, we’re asking for an awful lot for a company that works at this kind of per-user-revenue to treat the issue of customer service seriously, and in any case the market moves so much that Facebook could be a flash in the pan, and become the Compuserve of the 2010s as new ways of using the web arise. So even if we find a friendly and flexible service, we’ll have to move on again at some point in the future (no reason not to do anything tho!).

We can’t get away from piggy-backing though. I don’t think unions can build and run it ourselves, and so these problems will always be with us. The question is more one of how we minimise the risk involved with building our foundations on shifting sands?

I’m working on sounding out a hopefully more concrete suggestion I’d like to get your thoughts on soon, but in the meantime, what do you think unions could do to make themselves safer on the big networks?

Come chat about it here.

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10 thoughts on “How do you solve a problem like Blackadder?

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  2. Heh heh, no chance – people to see, things to do. And also if I’m any more active, I’d have to tidy up and remove the vote Ken banner, thought of which is still making me gag… 🙂

  3. Very, very interesting post. Perhaps what we need is a social networking tool made by the people for the people. With emerging platforms such as google app engine, it should b doable.

    As social network is bit of my line of business, and we seem to be both London based, could we perhaps meet for a chat?

    btw, have you seen ?


    – Yishay

  4. Been kicked of FACEBOOK myself no explanation. Just account disabled. Could you please sign my petition and pass it on? I worked for Liverpool City Council for over 20 years and had to resign due to Bullying and Oppressive behaviour by management. I have launched a campaign for a change in the law in relation to workplace bullying investigations. . When you complete the petition – it will email you a link which you have to click to actually have your name added to the list. Please do remember to check your spam folder if your email doesn’t appear and make sure your name is on the list

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