One of the joys of the world wide web (and in particular social media) is the ease with which you can read widely and get to see articles you wouldn’t ordinarily come across. Last week I read one such article, an interview with a lady called Eli Ingraham. The article described her as “a digital innovator, social strategist and collaborative economy thought leader”. I could write a series of blogs about the contents of the article and what they elicited for me. (Mainly about how I want to conduct business as a sole trader) but for now, one quote really stuck with me.
“Maybe networks are the trade unions of the Digital Era. Through networks we coalesce our voices and values to drive the changes we believe are in our mutual best interest. Maybe social networks are harnessing socialist principles without the scary politics.”
Leaving aside the assertion that socialist principles have scary politics (I’m guessing thats more of a stateside view) this statement just kept niggling away in my mind.
Regular readers may know that my last employed role was at London Underground, an organisation with some of the most powerful unions in the UK. Dealing with them was in many ways the dystopian nightmare that the press write about. They were intransigent, protectionist and yes, they still talked about “the brothers” – seemingly unaware how many sisters there are in the union these days.
There’s another view of unions for me. I come from Dorset. As a youngster you grew up with a couple of Dorset staples in your education, Thomas Hardy (unremitting rural poverty in book form), dinosaurs and fossils on the Jurassic Coast (or the coast as we called it before the marketing people got in) and the Tolpuddle Martyrs. For those of you who don’t know the story, in essence a bunch of farm labourers decided to form a “friendly society” to lobby for better conditions, the landowners didn’t like that so they were tried and convicted under laws meant for naval mutiny and they got transported to Australia for their trouble. They remain local heroes in a county where many people still owe the roof over the head to the family up in “The Big House”.
With two such wildly conflicting perspectives on union representation I was fascinated to think that social media could compete with the membership, dynamism and sheer power of organised labour. Yet I only have to cast my mind back to the uprising in Egypt or to the riots in London to see how quickly the technology can be harnessed to organise. There are many instances where social media has been a unifier, the recent #nomakeupselfie or #mentalpatientoutfit activism for example has been a powerful force for good.
Many on social media make wild claims that it is the future, that in time all our lives will be online, all the time. Certainly right now the fact that technology is not freely available to all militates against the idea that networks could become the new unions but in time you could see it happening. Of course social media has many and diverse voices, and with them the attendant cliques and factions that any gathering of humanity brings. The terrible abuse that Caroline Criado-Perez suffered is a case in point. Her offence? To suggest that a banknote had a woman on it. One wonders what twitter would do in response to something more contentious.
I find myself unconvinced that in their current form the networks of social media would be able to offer the same organisation and support as union membership, however I also feel it won’t always be this way. We need to work on the anonymity of social networks, there must be more transparency and a lot more cohesion to achieve this but it is possible. However, I feel the quote at the start poses a great question about what unions currently are, what they stand for and how they organise to face the challenges of a 21st century workforce. (Not forgetting that large chunks of the world’s workforce are working in the conditions of the industrial revolution or worse).
My final thought on the matter is this – since opening up on social media about my mental health I’ve been pleasantly surprised by just how supportive a community I have found. It’s worth noting that I didn’t have to look that hard to find it. I know that many of the resources I have discovered were available in the offline world, they were in leaflets in surgeries, tucked away in support groups or down at the sports centre. Social media offers an immediacy and also a willingness to share ideas, content and advice freely.
Somehow we need to harness that openness and use it in the offline world too.