On a cool New England autumn afternoon, I walked to Harvard Square to meet a fellow union organizer. Tim (not his real name) and I grabbed lunch and discussed his union’s current organizing drive at a mid-level university in the Boston area, where they’re having lots of trouble organizing a group that’s key to the future of the union movement: 20-somethings.
He told me a young organizer out of Harvard University’s rank-and-file planned a session on “why her friends won’t join/like the union.” His union wanted this hold this meeting to understand my generation’s approach towards workplace unity. Tim wondered whether new technologies and web-based social networks lessened a so-called “millennial’s” desire for community at work. Of course, many of my peers have little investment in their university jobs because they view them as a minor stepping stone in their career.
Tim’s comment about the Internet resonated with me after we parted. I don’t think progressives stress enough what potential damage to organizing the Internet has done. As we are often caught up in the wonders it has made, we can forget its significant and potentially growing downside. At the end of the decade, how better off are we with Facebook and Twitter? Are forms of so-called “social media” really a means of further encouraging the kind of narcissistic individualism that’s always been a major aspect of our culture?
The simple is answer is the world is grey.
Yes, new social networks have improved organizing. Look at the Iranian uprisings. Twitter and YouTube played a huge role in disseminating information about the Islamist regime's oppressive tactics. On a much smaller scale, the Young Democratic Socialists (YDS) used our Facebook group to find new contacts. We built several of our strongest chapters through this kind of outreach.
So what’s the gripe? The dilemma of our decade is not the existence of multimedia organizing tools per se. The problem is the activists who believe the Internet has replaced proven old-school techniques. On-line social networks can’t replace personal social contact.
Overreliance on the Internet returns us to the difficulty of organizing young people into unions. What is their incentive to unite outside of economic interests? Tim reminded me, and I saw this at hospitals where I organized, that you can find staff that never knew a world without the Internet texting, chatting, and Googling on company time. Our peers always have community – even if it’s artificial.
Indeed, you can have a thousand friends on Facebook. But how many of them would you feel comfortable joining alone at a bar if they were drinking with strangers? How many people do you know who post random tidbits about their day just for attention? Everyone knows folks, including myself, check their profile dozens of times daily as if they are waiting for something magical to happen next time they log on.
In the end, people still need a real community. Furthermore, building a union, a collective, or social movement requires face-to-face contact. During the past decade we witnessed the rise of new gadgets and means to communicate. Many devices that cost nearly a week’s pay one day are become little more useful than paperweights the next. As we move into the new decade, I think it’s safe to say that new organizing techniques haven’t evolved at the same pace as MP3 players. But it’s fine if technology outpaces new strategies. This is because the old ways in some ways were working.
My Luddite rhetoric masks my real point: in the age of web communication, an organizer’s main task remains getting people to step out of their comfort zone.
Web-based technologies and applications do expand our access to new ideas. But at the same time, they also leave people to gain information merely reinforce their currently existing worldview. This was true where it was easier to live in insular communities and when our society had ghettos without easy access to global knowledge. The conditions of the game have changed, but the basic rules do not: 1) Personal interaction is what builds movements. 2) Movements are what change society. 3) The revolution will not be televised (or on-line). The revolution will be live.
I view today’s editions of The Activist and Red Letter as living proof of using the new Internet media and old-school techniques in the best way. The Activist is primarily focused on theory and lengthier articles and the Red Letter on internal organization updates. The Activist today exists as a blog. Its articles bring quick responses which foster an immediate intellectual discourse that the previous magazine simply could not. Yet, the Red Letter still remains in paper newsletter (with a PDF version) distributed to campuses in bulk. Why? Because YDS grassroots activists still have to put a periodical detailing our work in people’s hands. Why? Because you can’t expect people just to find out about YDS and socialist activism on their own. You have to bring it to them. You have to take them out of their comfort zone.
Fellow YDS activist Will Emmons can attest that I used to chew out activists who didn’t distribute the Red Letter like Rahm Emmanuel on a bad day. Not pretty. But Will also got a date once by showing a young lady his copy of the Democratic Left. Strange, but true. So next time you knock a Trotskyite sect for selling papers, think about the last time you went up to a stranger and tried to talk to them about socialism. It might be obnoxious at times, but it gets members. They still maintain great websites and publications, too. But they know: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.