A New Year Round-up

As my deadline for this column approached (okay, as it receded in the rearview mirror, much to Our Times' editor's chagrin) two announcements generated another tidal wave of how-to articles on using social media in organizing: 1) Facebook now has more than 1 billion users, a number rising almost as fast as FB's share price is dropping, and 2) during the coverage of the American elections, polling seemed to have fallen out of favour and been replaced with Twitter-follower and FB "friend" counts. Australian union communications guru Alex White provides a nice antidote to this online frenzy in his recent commentary called "The limits of social media (and why face-to-face and email are still king)." It's a nice reminder, with lots of studies and references, that social media works best when used to support face-to-face contact.

A study that isn't getting much attention from the social media mavens was conducted early this year by Google and a market research firm called Shoppers Science. It concluded that the number of sources that a consumer consults before making a decision to buy (or join a union) has doubled from five to 10. It also found that American voters are more inclined to describe themselves as "undecided" if they rely on the internet for political info, as the internet allows them to make a decision up to the last minute, and with the maximal amount of information from more sources than the traditional media can offer. Check out the "zero moment of truth" study (and a whole pile of marketing jargon).

As I write this, the strike at three Saint John radio stations is ongoing. Striking Canadian Media Guild members at MBS Radio have launched Radio Free Saint John, a web-based station that has the most live, and lively, local presence in Saint John, New Brunswick. The Guild and the local labour community have been urging local advertisers to suspend their advertising on the struck stations Big John, K-100, and CFBC, for the duration of the strike. They have also urged listeners to tune out the MBS stations.

Now, those listeners and advertisers have an alternative. You can stream Radio Free Saint John on your computer.

You can also download a free app for your smart phone from Winamp. Once it is installed, go to "Home," click on "Shoutcast," search for Radio Free Saint John, and enjoy some scab-free radio. If you're in or near the Saint John area, visit the Radio Free Saint John office at 201 Union (!) Street, across from the struck stations.

Late last summer, YouTube announced a useful new feature called "Face Blurring," describing it this way: "Whether you want to share sensitive protest footage without exposing the faces of the activists involved, or share the winning point in your eight-year-old's basketball game without broadcasting the children's faces to the world, our face blurring technology is a first step towards providing visual anonymity for video on YouTube."

This comes at about the same time as rumours of Facebook adopting facial recognition features that would allow a search for individuals appearing in photos even when the subjects haven't been tagged. So, for those picket-line or demo shots, meeting memories and planning pictures, it looks like YouTube is trying to be our platform of choice.

On similar lines, Skype has agreed to lower its security to allow easier interception of calls by police. Perhaps this has no direct impact on trade unionists, but, if you were looking for more reasons to be a tad paranoid, this might be it.

Steel came up with a new twist on email campaigns this fall. Their campaign mobilized union members around the world to send mail directly to Siemens' workers in the U.S., encouraging the workers to hold the course and vote "yes" in a certification campaign. It's not unusual for unions to receive solidarity messages or copies of protest messages sent to a government or employer, but this adds a personal element that I haven't seen before.

Also American and even more innovative was a campaign started after Mitt Romney's "binders full of women" comment during the U.S. election campaign. Women across the U.S. organized to post comments on an Amazon.com page selling binders. (Make sure to scroll down to "comments" when you have a look.) Spontaneous, innovative, creative and, most importantly: humorous. (Wrote one person: "The EZ-turn rings keep the women contained during the day, but make it so easy to release them at 5:00 to go home to make dinner.") The campaign smacked a bit of the efforts made to "occupy" the Suzuki Facebook page the day company goons started shooting workers at a car plant in India.

This tactic of taking something already out there and re-purposing it to our ends is way underused. It's worth noting that, while the IMF glommed onto the Suzuki action and gave it a boost, both these actions are examples of self-organizing. Neither had an organization behind it at the start. Neither suffered from the lack of agility large organizations, including unions, have in taking advantage of opportunities like this on short notice. Word of mouth and the digital equivalent made them work.

My partner regularly accuses me of being a pessimist. I prefer to think of myself as having insulated myself against disappointment. If I assume the worst and it happens, I can be happy that things turned out as predicted. If they turn out better than I thought they would, then I can be happy I was wrong. The digital utopians of the Left are much reduced in number and influence, but now and then you can hear echoes of their "the internet will set us free" optimism from the '90s.

He's not quite a 'net dystopian, but the latest from Cory Doctorow on how states and corporations are ensuring that our utopia doesn't come to pass, and how the corps turn a tidy profit in the process, can be found in an interview he did recently with The Tyee.

Most months now, LabourStart gets about 700,000 unique visitors. I've no hard data on how many are Canadians, but, extrapolating from LabourStart's mailing list (I'm the senior Canadian correspondent), campaign participation numbers, etc., I would guess the number is somewhere around 100,000.

Our Canada news page covers most major unions - at least, what appears on their national sites. And there's a fair bit of material from the commercial media, as well as sites like The Tyee and rabble.ca. And Our Times, of course.

But, with a few exceptions, most unions depend on our volunteers being interested in what they have to say and getting it onto LabourStart (and from there onto our newswires and our French and English and global Twitter feeds). If your union wants to ensure its reach doesn't shrink if one of our volunteers moves on, think about making posting your news to LabourStart a part of someone's job. A number of (inter)-national unions make one or more of their staff responsible for this minor chore and more and more locals are making it a part of being an executive board member. Contact me for more info or just sign up for a free account.

Last but not least, a note on Mary Joyce, an American with a longstanding interest in digital tools in support of non-violent activism. She has been blogging informally but thoughtfully at her Meta Activism Blog for a while. Recently, she started a new gig as a PhD student at the University of Washington and, at the same time, as the manager of the Digital Activism Research Project (DARP), a project dedicated to "investigating the impact of digital media on civic engagement and non-violent conflict." Lots of good stuff here, for everyone from code-heads to people just looking for things to use. A word of warning, though: the site is very much a work in progress and the content and its accessibility vary a bit from day to day. Bookmark it and give it some time, but check in regularly.

Derek Blackadder is the co-ordinator for LabourStart in Canada and an honourary member of the Toronto Workers' History Project’s Archive Committee. Feedback and ideas for future WebWork topics welcome. 


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