Don't Drink the Tea. Think With the WE.

“If we’re at the point where employers are doing a better job of training workers to use social media for a purpose…than their unions are, we have a problem.”

The abandonment of Rush Limbaugh by his advertisers following ubiquitous outcry and disgust among social media users has proven once again the power of new media tools to incite action. But this power is unable to be corralled strictly for the common good. Corporations, too, are ahead of the curve in terms of social media and its marketing potential, especially when it comes to Facebook.

Derek Blackadder, writer for Canadian Labour magazine Our Times, recently wrote that when it comes to Facebook, big money is at stake and it is unreasonable to think Facebook would turn it’s back on money in order to be “the people’s voice.”

According to Blackadder, the social media paradigm is tricky with respect to unions and management as well. He suggests that management is winning the battle thus far. Transnational corporate willingness to employ people for new media management, coupled with Facebook’s willingness to help them in order to build their own product, means collective action may soon have no place on Facebook, Blackadder says:

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.

To be sure, unions have made strides in terms of social media use as an organizing and uniting tool:

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.

This strategy is effective now, but are labor leaders ahead of the curve and prepared for what the next method will be? Blackadder notes that Facebook, as a company, has more incentive to appease its clientele than the general public:

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.

As these tactics become more and more effective, Facebook has already shown willingness to bend for those they have contracts with. As membership continues to grow, so too will the monetary value of contracts. This will lead to more censorship, Blackadder fears.

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.

To read the Richard Blackadder article, which includes a perspective on what unions are doing right and wrong with social media, click HERE.


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