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.
2. Scale and amplification: With a single keystroke, social movements can now push information out to millions of people and lift up marginalized voices into national, and even global, spheres. But scale increasingly does not just mean trying to reach the whole world, especially as it has become increasingly difficult to break through the online noise. Scaling is also about surgically communicating with discreet sets of readers. Part of the success of the GLS blog is that rather than try to reach the global labor movement writ large, it targets a narrow subset of the movement that is grappling with long term, strategic questions of worker and class representation in the global economy. Two decades ago we could never have hoped to so quickly and cheaply carve out this global audience.
3. Interactivity: The web is not a one-way transmission belt like television; it's more akin to the telephone, allowing conversation, intimacy, and debate by tapping into the fundamental human desire for self-expression and shared communication. Net theorists like Clay Shirky argue that Web 2.0 represents "the largest increase in human expressive capability in history." Much of the power of labor and social movement organizations lie in their ability to allow those shut out of elite political activity to participate. With the internet encouraging this participatory tendency, social movements need to approach their technology platforms as more than just a new way to send out flyers and opinion pieces or run petition drives. They need to build freewheeling electronic spaces where workers and others can share, debate and collaborate.
4. Destruction of hierarchies: Elites have long controlled the broadcast tools – they have always owned both the printing press and distribution networks — which made them the gatekeepers of information flow, allowing them to frame the political debates and decide what is and what is not news. But new broadcast tools increasingly allow workers to publish and distribute their own news and begin redirecting information flows. The elites are terrified of this "mass amateuration" of broadcasting. The mass layoffs of journalists and the frantic fears of politicians who never know when a swarm of people might go on the attack are two recent examples of this erosion of the power of the "professional classes."
5. Cheapness and ease of tools: Labor and social movement organizations have been perennially under-resourced, and with the current financial crisis and global recession the situation will surely worsen. But at the same time with the advent of web-enabled mobile phones and $300 computers, cutting edge communication tools are becoming cheaper and more powerful, and as a result, quickly leveling the technological playing field. In South Africa for example, even though Internet penetration remains at around 10%, mobile phone penetration sits at 95%. (Eric Lee's recent parsing out the uses of Twitter to allow workers to communicate by mobile phone across borders and workplaces for free is a must-read for those tracking the online labor movement).
Social networking tools are also becoming easier and easier to use. Just in the last two years, people with little technical ability are now able to create websites, Facebook pages, YouTube videos, etc. We're drawing closer to the point where the majority of on-line tools are so simple that technical experts are irrelevant. The web is no longer the exclusive dominion of the young and highly educated, and as this trend continues it will allow social movements to cheaply and easily reach out to more and more working people.
What We Don't Know
These rapid changes raise more questions than they answer. Here are seven that we've been grappling with:
1. What does it mean if workers begin organizing on their own outside and without the help of traditional organizations? We don't know the ramifications for unions if truckers, for example, increasingly come together on-line to organize protests over gas price--as they did in April of this year--without ever attending a Teamster meeting or a receiving a house call from an organizer. Traditional union structures have already been outflanked by the global economy, now labor faces the challenge of workers acting collectively outside of trade union structures. This could offer fertile ground for trade unions and other social movement organizations or it might mean there are types of activities that are quickly becoming obsolete.
2. It's easy and cheap for organizations to bring people together into a swarm but what do you do with them then? Groups like MoveOn have perfected how to share information, fundraise and sign petitions. But outside the electoral arena, few have been successful in converting group interest into escalating political activity. Because of this people are joining and then quickly dropping out of social networks. Labor and social movement organizations need to keep experimenting with how to keep workers engaged and ways to encourage online activity from information sharing and debate to collaboration and collective action.
3. Will unions and social movement organizations be willing to cede control as workers use social networking tools to channel their own activities? The destruction of hierarchies online means that trade unions will face increasing pressure from workers to permit more rank and file debate and input. This is a healthy process and a long time in coming. If labor and other social movements are to embrace the dynamism of social networking sphere and move beyond simply posting opeds on Huffington Post written by union Presidents or NGO executive directors, they will have to cede significant control. Organizations that resist this trend will become increasingly irrelevant online and offline.
4. How do labor and social movement organizations address the dangers associated with online action? The majority of online tools and spaces are commercial ventures, and the transparent nature of web means that elites and bosses are always watching. Several Egyption bloggers were jailed last year after participating in calls for a general strike. Facebook recently closed the account of an SEIU affiliate who was trying to organize casino workers in Nova Scotia, Canada. As Eric Lee warns "Social networks in principle are excellent but something such as Facebook, for example can close down anything it wants. So I think unions need to have their own tools, websites and mailists." At the same time, there are legitimate concerns about the spread of online slander, "mobbing" of innocent victims (e.g. "swift boating"), false rumors and misinformation without ways to rebut. Social movements need to anticipate and respond quickly to racist, nationalist and other destructive forces converging online.
5. How do we track the demographics of who's online and who's not and what tools they are using? Some of the numbers on web usage are surprising. It's known, for example that Latino's in the US are offline in huge numbers but their cell phone use is skyrocketing just as mobile phones are increasingly web enabled. It's also known that poor and working class folks in the US are often trapped offline, but those that are online appear to be more interactive and engaged than other segments of the population. So for example, according to the PEW Research Center households making less than $50,000 a year are more likely put content (pictures, music, post comment in chatrooms, etc.) online than higher-income households. The demographics are changing fast; social movements need to be constantly reassessing assumptions about their target audience.
6. How do we present complex ideas online? We know that people take in information in a whole myriad of ways and weigh it differently depending on medium. On the web it's been difficult to figure out how to present complex ideas and synthesize large swaths of information electronically – blog posts work, long issue reports and white papers do not. The best model we have found for presenting and synthesizing a complex and evolving issue is Baseline.com, which has been tracking the global financial crisis.
7. How does offline and online social movement building fit together? We know it's essential but where and when to rely on face-to-face contact during an online campaign and vice-versa is still unknown. When, for example, do we call a virtual vs. a non-virtual protest; when is physical contact required to build lasting and deep solidarity vs. cheap and fast FaceBook or Twitter campaigns? The Obama campaign has broken new ground by fully integrating their online and offline activities. Each time a supporter interacts with the campaign data specialists create new layers for targeting that person by region, engagement and volunteer preferences. Then organizers use a myriad of tools--text messages, phone calls, house visits, etc.--to figure out how and where to plug supporters into the campaign structure. Labor and social movement organizations need to experiment with these new techniques but anticipate that online organizing will continue to be littered with failed experiments.
None of these questions will be answered overnight but it's in our interest to engage this new terrain and figure out how to use these swirling forces to our advantage.
So where to we go from here? This summer, encouraged by the success of their virtual strike, organizers launched "Union Island" on SecondLife, a space built to help the labor movement leverage new social networking tools, including how to create avatars, build more dynamic websites, as well swap tricks of the trade over a beer at the virtual bar.
Maybe we can all start by heading over to the bar for a virtual beer...b.s.