Facebook and the Unions

Walton Pantland has read:

* Online social networking and trade union membershipbor organizers (Bryson, A; Gomez, R and Willman, P 2010)

Here are his comments, excerpted:

“I found the article ultimately a little frustrating because I felt the authors were grappling with an important insight they couldn’t quite articulate. They are saying that society has fractured, atomised and balkanised since the 1950s, and there are few mass activities. This makes union organising hard, as current union structures are predicated on a mass culture. But despite this atomisation, Facebook has been immensely successful and has become part of mass culture. Unions should learn from this and adopt the attributes of Facebook to become part of mass culture again.

The problem is that they are not really clear on what attributes of Facebook make it really successful. They do mention ease of use, making the developer API available (so that programmers can write Facebook apps), and the fact that there is very low initial investment for users (5 minutes to join Facebook) for potential substantial return (hundreds of new friends). However, there are ten thousand things on the Internet that have the above characteristics, and fail to attract millions of users.

They have no real idea of how the positive attributes described above are transferable to unions, other than to suggest that organisational structures need to be reimagined. I agree with this, but they need to be less abstract.

Facebook is successful because it fills a specific need: the human desire to be social, to be seen, and to share information. It’s successful because it makes it easy to do this.

If unions really want to learn from the Facebook experience, they need to decide what need they fill in the lives of ordinary workers, and then make it as easy as possible to meet that need. I don’t know why the article couldn’t communicate that. To be quite realistic, unions seem useless to most workers. Union activists know that unions raise the average wages in society, make things safer and fairer etc., but this is not apparent to most people in the workplace. What can we do to communicate a message that is relevant to the modern workplace?

It’s also important to remain cognisant of Facebook’s exploitative relationship with its users: Facebook’s business model is to data mine user information and sell it to advertisers, and there is an antagonism between user’s desire for control over privacy, and Facebook’s quest for the maximum amount of information. A union’s relationship to its members is, hopefully, healthier than this.

For unions interested in exploring Internet business models for fun and profit, it might be worth adopting a freemium membership model. Freemium is the dominant web 2.0 business model: a basic but decent service provided for free, with a comprehensive service that you pay extra for. Survey Monkey is a good example: you can do basic surveys to a 100 people for free, but if you pay you get a really excellent, unlimited survey tool. Free accounts cost Survey Monkey nothing but a little bandwidth, and act as excellent advertisers. If unions used this model they could overcome the initial barriers to membership and bring new groups of workers into the fold without requiring a great commitment from them.

In a freemium model, some one could join the union for free, and get access to free online employment advice, possibly supplemented by an advice centre they could email and phone. The advice would have to be sound but generic, but crucially it would give unions important organising leads. If freemium members like their initial experience, they can become full members by paying, and getting representation, legal advice, collective bargaining in the workplace, lifelong learning and more.

I think this is worth trying, either through the TUC or a big general union. It would overcome initial barriers to union membership and give unions the opportunity to communicate to people what they offer.

I know that academic articles tend not to be very prescriptive, but I would have preferred it if this article had given some practical suggestions about Facebook-inspired organising models.”

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.