Webwork: Facebook’s Making Money

Some days it feels like Facebook is taking over the world. Many more days like the one on which I put this column together and it'll be hard to conclude it hasn't.

It's always worth a bit of time to check in with the opposition to see what they're doing and perhaps learn a few things in the process. What corporations are doing with platforms like Facebook is more than a little instructive, even if you don't face them across the table. Take the "web volunteers" network, for example. Many transnationals continuously recruit and train networks of employees, everyone from production workers to junior management (not senior, and not anyone who is normally a spokesperson for the corporation), to act on its behalf on social media sites. These folks, many of them unionized, track comments about the company's products, respond to criticism and identify budding viral attacks on the corporation's products or reputation.

Reading the social media communications manual for one transnational, the first thing that struck me was that, if the reality is anything like the policy, one corp is doing more mobilizing of its employees than their unions likely are. If we're at the point where employers are doing a better job of training workers to use social media for a purpose, and are more trusting of them to go out there and spread a message without supervision or approval, than their unions are, we have a problem.

A very, very big problem.

On the upside, the International Metalworkers Federation did a great job of responding online during the Maruti-Suzuki strike in India, in October 2011, when some loosely organized groups of workers thought to express their opinions online of Suzuki's use of armed goons. The result was an "occupation" of the Suzuki page on Facebook, with comments about the corporation's labour relations practices in India and their global disrespect for labour rights. Given the increasingly important role Faceboook is playing in corporate marketing strategies, and the sensitivity corporations show to attacks on their brands, this kind of action is more effective than you might think.

Put in traditional media terms, grabbing and controlling the content on a Facebook page is like being able to add our message in big black letters across a company advert in The Globe and Mail as it's being printed.

This tactic is being looked at by a number of unions and global union federations (GUFs), especially those that deal with corporations dependent on effective consumer brand recognition. So, it won't likely be used against a mining company, but might just be effective as part of a campaign against a hotel chain or retailer. Look for more of this and participate when you can.

Back to the downside. It's good to be reminded now and then: Facebook is a commercial, for-profit corporation, not a public utility. Without really trying, I came across two new "global partnerships" or contracts (am I just old and cranky or is there an army of corporate flacks in a basement somewhere, beavering away to re-make the English language into something more corporate-friendly?) between Facebook and corporations for marketing services. Both are brewers: Diageo (Guinness) and Heineken. This follows the 2011 deal that the latter made with Google for access to YouTube, which Google owns.

Heineken can now advertise on the YouTube platform, with Google agreeing to give the company its viewing data.

Might be just me, but I can't see corporate contracts with Facebook leading to anything but a narrowing of Facebook's focus to its commercial customers, and an increasing intolerance for the kind of insurgent activities we engage in that might threaten those contracts.

So, if you're thinking that an "Occupy Facebook" action might work for you, do it now. A year or two from now and Facebook may have figured out a way to protect its clients from us. And meanwhile, we need to start worrying about the extent to which our online campaigns are all dependent, to some extent, on Facebook remaining relatively neutral, a facility open to all within some pretty broad content limits.

Facebook's increasing monetization doesn't mean we'll just have to worry about it censoring our use in order to keep its paying customers happy. It has already done that, most recently with the BP and Target campaigns, and will probably do so again. We also need to worry about where it puts its resources. Not only can we expect it to evolve as a platform in ways that suit the paying clients, but we can expect even less emphasis on responding to individuals or non-paying account holders and their concerns.

Recent problems along these lines that unions have reported include a Facebook group that suddenly wouldn't allow new postings. Then the old postings disappeared. Then the ability of the admin to inform group members about what was happening, and to direct them somewhere else, broke. By the time Facebook tech assistance responded with a partial fix, two years of organizing efforts were toast.

In a "please fix my problem" contest for attention between a union group with a few hundred members and a transnational pouring millions into Facebook's coffers, guess who will win.

The point is, Facebook, Twitter, and all the other places we go online because the members are there, aren't ours and could turn hostile or disappear altogether. Remember this, and have a Plan B. They're all best used to drive traffic elsewhere for anything important.

Photo and video contests within unions are becoming fairly common. Not only do they deepen connections between rank and file members and their unions, but they can generate a lot of really very impressive material for those unions to use, which has the members' perspective built right in.

But there's one pretty obvious difference between the LabourStart contests (from the now-defunct "Website of the Year" contest through to the annual video competition): ours are finally decided by a vote of our readers and of new readers organized by the contestants and their unions. Most of the union-based contests I have seen are judged competitions, not ones voted on by peers. Why the hierarchical conclusion to a broadly participatory process? Why ignore a chance to build our online organizing capacity by increasing the size of our mailing lists? Require an e-mail address in exchange for a vote and, hey! Presto! Your list starts to grow.

And while I'm on the topic of photos by members, why does so little (read none) of the photo content on our websites come from members? Photos are probably the easiest bits of content for members to put together and send along; they require the least work before being presentable. So why aren't we using them to help make the point that our websites are the members'? If content defines ownership, a lot more member-generated stuff is needed. Start with photos and, next thing you know, we'll have enabled comments and then, who knows? Our websites might come close to realizing their potential as organizing tools.

As for videos, if you're a union geek and find yourself occasionally losing perspective, thinking that just by hitting the SEND button you're actually accomplishing something, this video should be mandatory viewing at least once a month: http://tinyurl.com/7gru6rv.

After the video takes the edge off, here's a more serious reminder that face-to-face is still what this is all about. This study of social media use during the uprising in Egypt points out that many participants in the protests only took to the streets AFTER the government shut down internet access. In other words, while they could, many were content to stay home and tweet their dissatisfaction. Once denied a way to protest from their couches, off they went to join the hardcore folks in Tahrir Square. Well worth a read: http://tinyurl.com/6sn5hxl.

Social Network Unionism is a bit towards the theoretical end of the spectrum, but, even so, it carries articles like this one that can help make our long-term use of (sigh) Facebook more effective: http://tinyurl.com/7cmh6y3.

Still not convinced that it is possible to have members out there using their mobiles and iPods and such to generate content for our websites and online campaigning efforts? See Witness for some inspiration (http://www.witness.org/) and Demotix for the slick bit: http://www.demotix.com.

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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