Digital Dreams (Part 1)
Beyond Corporate-Controlled Platforms
Over the years I've often turned to Han Solo for inspiration. When I think of corporate social media platforms like Facebook, I think of the scene in the 1977 movie Star Wars where the Millennium Falcon gets captured: "We're caught in a tractor beam and it's pulling us in," Han says. But they're not going to get me without a fight."
While Facebook isn't the only Death Star in a galaxy of corporate social media and web systems, we are well and truly caught in its tractor beam. We need to fight to get free.
Despite the odd profit drop and regular bouts of bad press, Facebook remains the dominant social media platform, according to a 2018 annual report from Ryerson University's Social Media Lab. Eighty-four per cent of all online Canadian adults (18+) have an account and 80 per cent use it at least once a month, the highest level of "monthly active users" of all platforms.
Many younger people see Facebook as a place for older people and are drawn elsewhere as their prime place of connection. "Nobody is on Facebook anymore," one younger colleague tells me, but the report found that a full 95 per cent of people between 18 and 24 have an account. (I'm concentrating on Facebook here only because, right now, it's the social media platform unions use the most. The fight, though, applies to any corporate-controlled social media platform, whether Instagram, also owned by Facebook, Snapchat or the like.)
Facebook is easy to use, and everyone is there. We use the platform for everything, all the time. We come for the connection and community, and stay for the notifications. Those unrelenting psycho-behavioural mechanisms, scientifically designed, affirm our popularity, sense of belonging and even self-esteem in a world where our economy and institutions are failing most people.
For organizations that use these platforms, more than self-esteem is at stake. As digital publishers, we need to fight to rebuild our own ability to publish, teach and engage using digital tools we control.
EVERY TOOL SHAPES THE TASK
Every tool shapes the task, and corporate social media platforms are no different. They carry their own bias of accumulating, tracking, and organizing sweeping amounts of data. They facilitate unrelenting competition for our members' attention, and force us to play marketing's game. Do we internalize these biases and rules?
As union educators, organizers and communicators, our dependence on Facebook is digital sketchiness of the highest order: We build Mark Zuckerberg's business rather than take care of our own.
We know we're being tracked and sold inside a massive marketing apparatus based entirely on surveillance. Why do we stay locked in? Is it really a free choice?
"Does it seem reasonable to conclude consumers chose ubiquitous surveillance?" asks Brett Frischmann in the July 2018 Scientific American article "Algorithm and Blues: The Tyranny of the Coming Smart-Tech Utopia": "No, not really. That's an argument that only makes sense when made in hindsight with blinders on to ignore inconvenient facts about political economy, techno-social engineering and human psychology."
Frischmann goes on to trace the more nuanced reality of what actually happened: "Did people take supposedly free stuff they were given, gradually develop expectations, preferences and habits via experiences in a highly engineered digital networked environment, and become dependent on surveillance capitalism? Yes, that seems a more reasonable description of the past two decades."
"Why are we still moving towards it?" Luke Skywalker whines, as the Millennium Falcon gets dragged closer and closer to the Death Star.
Partly, we're "still moving towards it" because Facebook follows us around the web whether we have an account or not, writes University of Virginia media professor Siva Vaidhyanathan, author of Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy.
Facebook, he tells NBC News, "will always watch everything we do. It will always target ads very precisely in ways that manipulate us. It will always amplify the worst things about us because that's the nature of Facebook. Facebook cannot work if it doesn't do those basic things."
Vaidhyanathan talks about the platform's three major forms of surveillance:
• Commercial: connecting potential customers
(prospects) to marketers to make sales (conversions)
• State: connecting detailed records of our relationships,
activities and sentiments to state agencies
• Inter-personal: yes, connecting us to each other and sharing
our thoughts, desires, cute photos and strong opinions
— and also watching what each one of us says and does.
In all those senses, Facebook truly is about connection.
Says one colleague: "The things I love about Facebook as a marketer are the same things I hate about it as a user. It just sees and knows everything."
Harvard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff, writing in the German newspaper, Frankfurter Allgemeine, calls surveillance capitalism "a wholly new subspecies of capitalism in which profits derive from the unilateral surveillance and modification of human behavior."
Activist, scholar and former programmer Zeynep Tufekci, author of Twitter and Tear Gas, remarks that "surveillance is baked into everything we're doing." In a 2017 speech, grimly titled "Sleepwalking into Surveillant Capitalism, Sliding into Authoritarianism," Tufekci observed that we live, increasingly, inside "surveillant persuasion architectures" that today try to get us to click on an ad and buy something but, more and more, will be "persuading us to support something, to think of something, to imagine something."
About the growing polarization in our societies and the rise of authoritarianism, Tufekci says, "The tech world wants to talk about anything but how technology may be compatible with and aiding this kind of authoritarian slide."
Nasma Ahmed, director of the Digital Justice Lab, believes that people need to make informed decisions and understand potential risks. The Toronto-based Lab engages with diverse communities, technologists, community activists and policymakers to build what it calls "alternative digital futures."
Ahmed points to concerns about police surveillance of Black Lives Matter activists on Facebook (and elsewhere).
"If we're going to use the platform we have to understand the risks — if you don't have to say it on Facebook, then don't," she advises. "The most important thing is making those assessments."
BUILDING AN ALTERNATE DIGITAL FUTURE
For Ahmed, the ability of workers, Black people, Indigenous people and people of colour to build power is central to building an alternate digital future where everyone has equitable and safe access to the Internet. It's a thrilling vision, and unions can play a part in it.
"Digital technologies can play a major role in shifting power dynamics," she says. "Our future is quite liberatory and I think the only way we can get there is in our practices today."
In the meantime, though, there's that tractor beam. One colleague tells me she "feels terrible about it, but that's where everybody is."
I feel my colleague's queasiness as she "renders unto Facebook." But that gnawing feeling is there for a reason. It's saying that it's time for organizations to get serious about digital publishing — beyond posting and advertising on Facebook.
Derek Blackadder, Our Times' WebWork columnist, puts it bluntly: "We don't control it. We don't own it. There are good reasons to use Facebook, but not having a Plan B is irresponsible — likely crazy," he tells me.
Over the years, his list of reasons why over-reliance on Facebook is bad has only grown. In recent columns he's listed organizing campaigns that Facebook killed due to companies threatening legal action; he's pointed to union websites that prominently display their social media posts, but whose "News" sections haven't been updated in years.
WE'RE LOSING TRACK OF ORGANIZING
He sounds the alarm: "We're losing track of a principle of union communications that everything a union does should be looked at through an organizing lens," he says. "The key principle: whatever you do for this campaign you are trying to build capacity for the next one. Win or lose, how do we increase chances of success for next time?"
As Blackadder also notes, dependence on Facebook makes unions vulnerable to the shifting rates of platform adoption across age groups. What happens once your union finally gets comfortable on Facebook, only to discover that the younger workers you want to reach are on Snapchat? What unions have a Snapchat strategy?
After the top three platforms (Facebook, YouTube and LinkedIn), Snapchat and Instagram are the next most popular platforms in Canada, according to the Social Media Lab.
About 66 per cent of people between the ages of 18 and 24 use Snapchat and Instagram regularly, but only 17 per cent of people aged 55 and over use Instagram; for Snapchat, usage for folks 55+ drops to a mere five per cent.
Those statistics remind us that the labour movement's persistent inter-generational gap has a massive digital component, too. So it's vital we pay attention to digital divides as we plan for union succession — and success.
"Success," by the way, can be achieved through some good old analogue strategies, says Jonathon Hodge, Digital Privacy Project Lead at the Toronto Public Library and a member of the Toronto Public Library Workers Union (Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 4948).
In his own organizing work at Toronto libraries, Hodge describes how co-workers, even years afterwards, have told him how important a single conversation was to them in the development of their understanding of workplace issues. Digital tools are a mechanism for conversation, he says, but not a replacement for it.
NO REPLACEMENT FOR PERSON-TO-PERSON CONVERSATIONS
"We have to do the groundwork," Hodge says. "There is no replacement for those person-to-person conversations. We used to call this organizing." Nobody, he notes wryly, has told him how much a Facebook meme has meant to them.
It's tempting to "delete Facebook," but it's more vital to go "beyond Facebook" and put our attention on developing digital strategies grounded in solidarity, creating content our members want and need, and offering relevant learning opportunities. And it's especially important that we build the capacity to do all of that in-house.
Can we completely free ourselves from corporate logic when we use digital tools? I don't know. But I do know that organizations concerned with worker rights, justice and solidarity need to rethink our digital strategies and base them in logics of mutual aid — not in the values and spreadsheets of digital marketing metrics.
We might continue to "boost" posts and run ads on Facebook, but mostly in order to promote union-controlled digital spaces where we go beyond buying our own members' attention and instead provide them with something they can use — and be proud of. If we're not rebels against the Empire, or at least against social-media surveillance machines, then who are we and what are we doing?
Dependence raises questions we need to answer:
• Are we putting enough, if any, effort into building
our capacity to meaningfully engage with our members
on digital platforms we own and control?
• Are we creating digital content and
experiences that people want and find useful?
• Is the "perpetual now" of social media weakening
our ability to come together and discuss strategy?
• What principles are we organizing around?
In her book, As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom through Radical Resistance, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson talks about the "grounded normativity" of Nishnaabeg intelligence. This concept is one of the most vital lessons in her brilliant and visionary book.
A normativity relates to standards or norms of behaviour. It's the idea that we are what we do; we are how we do it.
For Simpson, grounded normativity is Nishnaabewin, the communal intelligence that fortifies her people's vitality and strengthens their ability to resist colonial erasure. It's the "practices and ethical processes that make us Nishnaabeg — including story or theory, language learning, ceremony, hunting, fishing, ricing, sugar making, medicine making, politics, and governance."
"[C]entering ourselves in this Nishnaabeg process of living," Simpson writes, "is both the instrument and the song."
What song are we singing when we rely on corporate social media platforms?
BUILDING INCLUSIVE WORKPLACES AND COMMUNITIES
And what would we consider to be grounded normativity for unions? Surely, we would find it in our practices and ethical processes. We demonstrate "union intelligence" when we support each other in solidarity, seek respect for workers, build more inclusive workplaces and communities; we demonstrate it in collective bargaining, coalition and movement building and defending gains made through struggle — and organizing based on real, long-term social relationships built on trust and mutual empowerment. That takes time.
By contrast, digital is super speedy. It's like flying through hyperspace on the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs. (Yes, I'm talking about the Millennium Falcon.)
Digital may be fast, but it's ultra-short-term. It does not build the spaces (or the mindset) we need to pause, confer and deliberate. It generates the impression of incredible — and exciting — engagement, but we know that much of it is shallow and fleeting. Digital "conversations" are brittle and transient, when what the world needs — and what our organizations and movements need — are places where we can have open conversations and connection grounded in solidarity.
As organizations, as workplaces, unions and other non-profits need to bridge our silos and have "internal discussions about the different ways to speak," says Laurie Antonin, a political action and digital campaigns staffer at the Canadian Labour Congress.
It's helpful for unions to think, inspired by Simpson's concept of grounded normativity, in terms of "union intelligence" and for us to base our digital strategies on that, rather than on advertising metrics — and not by mimicking definitions of engagement created by corporate social media platforms.
The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW Canada), for example, has by far the most developed union online-learning program in Canada. Its WebCampusPlus hosts over 160 courses ranging from retirement planning to leadership to math skills to politics — even digital photography! The courses are available, free, to all UFCW members — and, what's more, to their families as well. Talk about union intelligence. (We'll learn more about WebCampusPlus in Part Two of this article).
SOLIDARITY-BUILDING DIGITAL STRATEGIES
Unions and other non-profits reduce dependence on corporate platforms when we approach digital strategy from a place of solidarity; when we tell our stories in creative and diverse ways; when we organize our members and communities around learning opportunities; and when we build our capacity to do all of this in-house.
We tell story, we teach and learn — in solidarity. We'll explore how in Part Two.
It ends poorly for the Death Star and it might for Facebook, too. In the meantime, it's long past time to open a wider and deeper conversation about digital in our organizations.
Is moving beyond corporate platforms like Facebook possible? What would Han say?
He'd say, "Never tell me the odds."
And he'd be right.
This is Part One of a two-part article. In Part Two, Robbins will talk to digital publishers who help non-profits publish and connect to their audience. He'll see what popular online union education can look like and talk to unions that are getting more serious about video production. And he'll learn from labour activists who are rediscovering how to protect our privacy and use powerful tools — tools that we control. Watch for Our Times' upcoming Winter issue.
David Robbins is a writer, union communicator and settler living and working on unceded Algonquin Anishnaabe territory in Ottawa-Gatineau. He is part of a growing co-conspiracy to shadowforge a future.