A decade ago, it was not easy to convince some on the left to begin using net-based tools to communicate and organise. Today, we run the risk of becoming over-reliant on some of those tools, most notably Facebook.
This is not the first time I (or others) have addressed the weaknesses of Facebook. Much of what has been written has described theoretical possibilities of things going wrong. For example, Facebook could — in theory — close down any group, page, cause or event you might set up without warning or explanation or right of appeal.
We had a case a few years ago of Facebook shutting down a group organising casino workers in one of Canada’s Atlantic provinces — simply because the owners of the casino asked them to.
But those examples were rare, and the risks seemed remote, and increasingly trade unions and campaigning organisations began to use Facebook to organise their events and activities.
Recently, I’ve come across two concrete examples in daily life of the risks we take when we do this.
One is a Facebook group I set up for a campaigning organisation. I noticed one day that it was blocking me from adding new posts to the group’s “wall”. A message pops up headlined “Oops!” and informs me that “Something’s gone wrong. We’re working to get it fixed as soon as we can.” And it’s been that way for weeks.
I wrote to Facebook technical support to report the bug, but got no reply at all.
Not only can’t I post any new items to the group, but all the old ones have disappeared. About two years worth of weekly archived posts.
And if I want to write to all members of the group to tell them that the wall is no longer there, well, that option seems to have disappeared as well.
So I have a group with a few hundred members that I can no longer communicate with, and no place to get help.
The second example is another group, a much larger one with several thousand members. Its wall is functioning well — but I can no longer send messages to its members, or even see who they are or how many of them are members.
And again, there is no place to go for help — we don’t pay to use Facebook, and they’re under no obligation to provide any kind of support.
In both cases, I have websites and mailing lists independent of Facebook, so I can communicate with most (but not all) of these people. And those websites and mailing lists use open source tools which I can edit and control, and are backed up regularly by me.
Am I suggesting that we stop using Facebook?
Not at all. But we rely on it at our peril. We run the risk of being cut off from the very people we think we are communicating with, and not only when some employer gets angry and demands that our groups be shut down.
Sometimes the problem is simply a technical one — “oops” — but this is just as difficult to deal with.
We need to have our own tools, websites, blogs, mailing lists, and social networks, which we control and which we can back up.
That’s the easy part. The hard part is we need to convince our audiences to use those tools, and not rely on Facebook as a way of staying in touch with us.