On September 27, 2007 the world experienced its first virtual strike. In response to a wage dispute, IBM workers in Italy organized a picket outside their company's virtual "corporate campus" based in the 3-D virtual world of SecondLife. According to a report in the Guardian, workers "marched and waved banners, gate-crashed a [virtual] staff meeting and forced the company to close its [virtual] business center to visitors...The protest, by more than 9,000 workers and 1,850 supporting 'avatars' from 30 countries", included a rowdy collection of pink triangles, "sentient" bananas and other bizarro avatars.
While the strike was playful, it was also buttressed by careful planning and organization. Workers set up a virtual strike taskforce, developed educational materials in 3 languages, and held more 20 online worker strategy meetings. The hard work paid off. According to Christine Revkin of the Swiss union federation involved in the strike, the protest led to new negotiations and the workers securing a better deal. Twenty days after the initial protest the Italian CEO of IBM resigned. (Here's a YouTube video from the strike and the new virtual IBM protest museum.)
Stories like this offer a glimpse into the powerful potential of the emerging 2.0 world, a place where workers use social networking tools to quickly reach across national and workplace borders, outflank their bosses, and wield collective power. But right now, the type of virtual solidarity seen in the IBM strike remains more promise than reality. People are willing to sign petitions, donate money, trade information and join in political discussions online, but translating these activities into labor solidarity built on trust and a willingness to take economic or physical risk on another's behalf is exceedingly rare.
As a result, political action online has been largely relegated to electoral politics and tepid humanitarianism: it's been great for raising money for Tsunami relief and mobilizing voters, but pretty flaccid when it comes to wielding social movement power. (One exception is organizing around highly repressive regimes, where workers, students and others have successfully used mobile phones, twitter, etc. to organize escalating protests and free jailed activists.)
This tension around the pros and cons of online organizing has spurred a healthy debate inside and outside global labor and social movements. Earlier this year Eric Lee, the Godfather of the online labor movement posted an article entitled "How the Internet Makes Organizing Harder", which drew a flurry of responses. More recently community organizers in the US have been debating on DailyKos the merits of an article entitled "Real Change Happens Offline", written by Sally Kohn, campaign strategist at the Center for Community Change
GLS has been experimenting with online strategies for close to a decade now, largely spurred by our earlier work in the 1990's trying to figure out how to build and maintain a large but informal network of North American contingent workers. We come to the problem as longtime chroniclers of social movements interested in the underlying forces at work online, how these forces can help or hinder social movement building, and how they challenge existing union and social movement structures. Over the coming months we'll be tracking some of the latest strategies and tools of 2.0 social movements. This first post begins to layout out some basic trends and questions GLS has been tracking.
What's New and What's Not
Social networking is not new and not about technology. It's not about Myspace, Facebook, or YouTube; instead it's what everyone does every day: kindle and expand networks of friends, family, co-workers, etc. In the political context it's about finding and building communities of interest, linking common struggles, and acting collectively. Facebook and other online social networking tools are just a new way for people engage in this age-old activity.
But at the same time the online universe is not simply another place for people to congregate, circulate a petition, debate politics or mail out a newsletter. Nor is it simply a new technology like cable television -- merely bringing more channels into the home. Instead the web is increasingly looking like the invention of the printing press, which radically changed the lives of even those that could not read by spurring the protestant reformation and scientific revolution.
During just the last several years the internet has evolved from its first generation as a static information portal (e.g. websites) to what is now referred to as Web 2.0, marked by the explosion of user-generated and interactive content (Clay Shirky, author to Here Comes Everybody, has done some of the best work on the implications of Web 2.0 for organizations.) There are five reasons why this newly evolved electronic space is especially relevant to the future of the global social movements:
1. Group Formation: New social networking tools, ranging from Facebook and Twitter to email and listserves, make forming groups—and hopefully social movements—much easier. Every time labor organizers knock on doors, hold a community meeting or organize a protest the primary goal is to entice individuals into group activity; they hope to transform isolated actors with little social power into a powerful force for social change. The problem is that group formation has always been very hard to do.
What is new about tools like Facebook is that they make more varieties of group formation possible. Now, totally on their own, millions of people are finding others who care about the same things they do, whether it be around oyster farming, workplace complaints, or radical politics. What the web has revealed is that there were thousands of these latent groups that for hundreds of years were never able to form because it was too difficult for people to identify others with similar interests and too difficult for them to efficiently communicate when they did. So now even the most transient and marginalized sectors in society can potentially form support and sharing networks. Thousands from the homeless community, for example, have gathered online to share their stories and swap survival strategies, often posting from public libraries.
At their core labor and other social movements are about group formation, and now suddenly the tools exist to make it much easier to bring people together. In practice, the labor movement might begin helping workers access and learn how to use these new tools, and let them uncover their own latent groups---groups that may well not fit neatly into a narrow trade union agenda. Labor and social movement organizations might also spend more time trafficking where people are already gathering online, such as within the Obama social networks, and practice getting in the middle conversations and shifting debates.