Webwork: Facebook Needs A New Button

I'm thinking it's time for a global labour conference on social media, just on the principle that somebody has to do something to encourage more systematic use of platforms like Facebook. From the looks of things, only a few national unions have developed their Facebook presence. At the local union level there's even less evidence of strategies based on an assessment of what FB does, and how.

It's the lack of knowledge about most basic FB stuff that concerns me the most, like the "choices" Facebook makes for us when displaying updates from friends and groups and pages when you're looking at your FB page. Or, more importantly, when the targets of an online campaign are looking at theirs. When you're on Facebook, look to the right of "News Feed" and you'll see that you're most likely looking at "Top News." You have to hit the "Most Recent" button to see everything (I think, but really, who knows?) that's been posted.

How does FB select what to display as "top news"? A bit of code looks at variables such as the number of "likes" a posting gets, or the number of "likes" a page has and how fast that number is growing. It then ranks postings and updates and presents them to you in that order of priority.

The problem (well, one of them) is that humans like good news, so they tend to hit FB's "like" button when presented with cheery updates. Post some bad news about a nasty employer and your campaign is less likely to get its share of "likes." And if your message is low on "likes," it will be placed at the bottom of the queue by FB's algorithms.

Unions are (mostly) defensive organizations. Employers act, we react. Mostly, we react to nasty things, which means we're too often the bearers of bad news. So, maybe we need a global campaign to get FB to add an "I think this is important" button as an alternative to "like." That, or we need workshops for our flacks so they can learn how to turn a bad news story that gets no "likes" and disappears instantly into a good news story that gets "liked" to death and therefore gets lots of viewing. "Employer locks out workers. Luckily, weather great!" may be our future.

The theme of the conference could be Kranzberg's First Law: Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.

It's not a "social media for unions conference," but, being interactive, it's pretty close: I'm talking about the B.C. Federation of Labour's "New Media Bootcamp for Union Activists," a spectacularly good idea that was launched in July. I'll give you a more detailed review of this six-week online course down the road, but already the signs are that this much-needed effort will be immensely useful. It's certainly popular: a week before the registration period ended there were already 1,500 participants signed up.

Interestingly, a significant number are from outside Canada. The downside? Well, if those numbers hold, there's a good chance the Fed's servers will feel the strain. And fielding comments and questions from, say, 2,000 participants will be a full-time job for a few people, I should think. Still, there are worse things than being popular around the world.

Amnesty International Canada has a neat new campaign site as part of AI's 50th anniversary celebration. Join one of their online campaigns via their Social Media Action Centre at ai50.ca and you can select the social networking platforms you have accounts with. Nothing will happen when you indicate your willingness to participate in the campaign, but, at some later date and time, all the messages, tweets and updates will go out from all campaign participants at the same time.

I've made a note in my datebook to talk to AI sometime this fall and see what they think about the results. The campaign is innovative, which is a good thing, as it will likely grab some attention amongst AI supporters and potential supporters. But does it matter whether there are 1,000 tweets over a day or in a few seconds? It seems to me this would be a more effective tactic with older technologies, like phone calls or, better yet, getting 1,000 people out to a picket line or participating in a sit-down. (Mind you, 1,000 phone calls at once might lead to a pretty effective service-denial action.) What is clearly a great idea is the "one-stop shopping" approach, with AI giving their participants one spot from which to send messages across a number of platforms.

A study by HP researchers in the U.S. shows clearly how Twitter doesn't reflect "subversive" or "alternative" news and opinion as much as it just offers a mirror to the traditional media. The study's conclusions add to the growing consensus that new media doesn't so much expand our intellectual horizons as give us the ability to reinforce our existing prejudices and inclinations. See the study here.

As I write this, LabourStart's internal bloggers are debating, for what must be the 20th time, why certain campaigns we run get lots of attention, while other don't. To illustrate the point: this past summer, we started two campaigns on the same day. One called for readers to support a Colombian trade unionist, imprisoned in a country where the torture and killing of trade unionists is common. The other asked readers to express their support for the Canadian postal workers, who were being legislated back to work. Both were worthy campaigns; both were promoted by LabourStart to our mailing lists (approaching 80,000 subscribers); and both were endorsed by reputable unions. Yet, in the same period of time, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers' campaign generated five times as many messages as the Colombian campaign. Why? For what it's worth, one point seems to have general agreement: there's clearly a direct relationship between general or prior knowledge of a country and/or union and/or employer and/or issue, and the inclination to participate in a campaign.

Think the issue of net neutrality isn't important? What would the CUPW campaign have looked like if each message had cost the sender and LabourStart 25 cents each? Think it isn't a broader, working-class issue? Ask one of the many rural Canadians whose Services Canada office has closed, and who has no choice but to access everything, from EI to passport services, online. See netneutrality.ca and savournet.ca for how you can help. The Dutch have effectively banned two-tiered Internet access this year. Chile made it law last year. Time for us to, too.

Last but not least, John Wood of the British TUC (Trades Union Congress) reports that Facebook was banning, IN ADVANCE, organizing efforts made in preparation for the national public sector strikes in the UK last summer. You can find cautionary details here.

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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