Cambridge UCU member Jana Bacevic is running a #NoCapitulation: using social media session at UCU in transformation: UK-wide activists’ day school, taking place in London this Saturday, UCL, Roberts Engineering Building, Torrington Place (short walk from Kings Cross/Euston). This blog post is a short reflection on the topics concerning the role of social media in union organizing raised by the strike action, and a set of basic questions to guide members and activists in using social media beyond industrial action; it’s meant to kick-off discussion, not cover exhaustively the content of the session.
The comments box is open, so please let us know any questions, comments, or specific aspects you would like to learn more about, or tweet at us with #UCUtransformed. We will also be live-tweeting from the session, so follow the hashtag if you can’t attend in person – and we hope you will!
USS strike and social media: how did we get here?
This snippet from the thread of Direct Messages that started between UCU branches on Twitter sometime during the strike reflects well, I think, some of the dominant characteristics that shaped both the strike itself and the use of social media within it:
(1) It all happened very quickly;
(2) Quite a bit involved coordination ‘on the run’, frequently between people who had no previous experience in doing similar things;
(3) The existing union (or branch) procedures were insufficient to offer guidance, especially given the speed of events;
(4) Results were often outstanding and surprised even those involved from the beginning.
Though technically an ECR, I was lucky enough not to have social media duties foisted upon me: I volunteered, together with a bunch of other people. This may seem strange, as I am not a social media expert (neither am I sure what a social media expert is, but some organisations pay a lot of money to people to advise on this): I am a sociologist and social theorist, and my work has, for a while now, been on how people act together politically – including in universities. In this sense, I am interested less in what technology can do, as much as how we can use technology (including digital technologies) to harness the power to act together, as a collective.
A lot of the writing on the role of social media in political mobilisation and social movements emphasises its transformative potential, especially when it comes to democracy and horizontal decision-making. However, as the history of science and technology suggests, technology does not do that alone: it equally has the potential to be transformative and to perpetuate the status quo; to subvert existing relations of power as well as to amplify them. The question, therefore, is how we can use social media to support and further develop those elements of the strike we’d like to see more of – solidarity, comradeship, swift coordination between branches – and not perpetuate others, including top-down power relationships, different forms of exclusion, etc.
One of the reasons why branches’ social media strategies often boiled down to that proverbial ECR is that social media fall neatly in the crevice between usual union communications. On one side of this crevice are traditional ways of reaching out to current and prospective members: meetings, leaflets, regular emails distributed via branch or departmental mailing lists or reps. On the other side are ways in which unions communicate with the ‘general public’, including traditional media: press releases, communiqués, and interviews. Add to this the fact that local branches usually have limited resources; even if there is a designated ‘comms person’, social media – with few exceptions – was not very high on the list of their priorities. It’s probably not an overstatement to say that before the strike, social media was not seen as central part of union communications, let alone its strategy.
So what can social media do?
The best and the worst characteristic of social media is that it spans both worlds: it can, at the same time, reach members (current and prospective), as well as the general public. However, distinguishing between the two is more complex than in ‘traditional’ union comms; while some platforms (e.g. Facebook) offer limited possibilities of ‘selecting’ audiences, it makes sense to assume that, in principle, all activity on social media is (or can be) visible to anyone. This is particularly the case with privacy issues related to platforms such as Google or Facebook. The solution, of course, is not not to use social media at all, but rather to match the platform to the type of message and audience you are trying to reach. If done well, social media can engage existing members, attract new ones, and communicate the union/branch political message in ways that are more efficient and potentially farther-reaching than those through classical union channels. If done badly, however, it can alienate existing members and present the organisation in a less-than-favourable light (anyone need reminding of UUK’s ‘we’ll meet you tomorrow’ Twitter moment ;)?).
Ideally, obviously, a branch social media account should aim to do more of the former, and less of the latter. However, there are bound to be mistakes and backfires: after all, as one of the contributors to the branch Twitter DM channel said, “behind these handles are real people”. No social media ‘guide’ or strategy can fully insulate from it: at the end of the day, like any other political message, social media is about knowing and listening to your members. Here, however, are a few questions I think can help orient social media use in ways that help build solidarity within the union.
 What is the nature of the message you are trying to communicate?
Some platforms are better suited to specific forms of communication – for instance, Twitter works well for relaying information as well as short political positioning statements – e.g. “We encourage the University to avoid pay docking” or “Solidarity with XYZ workers on strike to defend their pensions!”. However, given the character limit, a more detailed elaboration of political position will require a link to a longer document – for this, you need to rely on a website/blog, or Google docs.
Similarly, Facebook works well for events – but so does Eventbrite. One of the challenges is to avoid using too many channels for the same thing: it multiplies labour needed to provide content and creates potential confusion (what if the event on Facebook says it starts half an hour earlier than the event on Eventbrite?). The only rule of thumb is to use the platform with the broadest possible public access – so, make sure that even those not registered can get information about the event.
That being said, obviously, if you need to communicate something strictly confidential, best is to stay off social media completely.
 Who is the audience you are trying to reach?
Three obvious groups are members, prospective members, and the general public. In addition to this, there are specific groups you may already be working or liaising with – other unions, local activist groups, campaigns, etc. In principle, social media can be used to communicate with all of them – but, sometimes, you need to adjust the message and medium to specific audiences. For instance, when reaching out to graduate students, it makes sense to focus on Facebook; when focusing on other organisations and institutions, it makes sense to prioritise Twitter, perhaps, depending on the context and suitability, adding their handles.
Following and liaising with other members and groups on social media is a good idea – it makes coordinating campaigns easier and reduces the amount of labour needed to keep the feed populated.
 Do you really have time to engage?
Most people build the impression of social media from their own – or other people’s – patterns of use. From this perspective, social media can seem like a wonderful opportunity to connect with and engage in discussion with other people. The reality for a branch account, however, is that this can become very time-consuming, not to mention a potential source of conflict. The question, therefore, is: what kind of engagement is best served by social media?
This will obviously vary in relation to branch, but here are some of the guidelines we apply at Cambridge UCU: engage to provide information – always; support – if and when appropriate (don’t forget that branch officers and case-workers exist precisely for this purpose – social media can be a first point of contact but is not a replacement); discussion – if and only if there is a clearly defined branch position (remember – you are posting as branch, not as individual); argument – never. The latter may seem a bit contentious, and at times makes the branch seem ‘aloof’ or disconnected, but the truth of the matter is that no-one benefits from prolonged shouty conversations. Do not feed the trolls. If you are being trolled on the basis of a misunderstanding, provide clarification – once (don’t be the UUK); then let go.
Also: never, ever post after coming home from the pub.
 What’s the best way to integrate social media into union working patterns?
Here it is, the elephant in the room: working for the union is, for the most part, voluntary. This means that we should by all means strive to avoid it becoming someone’s full-time job (unless they are paid for it, of course). This is particularly important as social media is still often treated as a ‘lighter’ part of comms and/or something that doesn’t involve a high degree of political judgment (neither is true, of course); as a consequence, it is frequently foisted upon ECRs, women, minorities, tech people, or whoever else is seen as ‘naturally’ good at it.
One good way of resisting this is always having a social media team – that is, multiple union members who can use different accounts. However, it is also important to have a clear schedule, rota, and a delineated set of duties – for instance, a ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ person for each platform, and someone in charge (and with overall responsibility) for the strategy. You also need a quick and efficient conduit between the exec and comms – we use WhatsApp groups, which also allow for quick sharing and distributing of content, but Slack and other platforms are also available.
Last, but not least, this is where technology can really help: apps such as Tweetdeck, Buffer, and Hootsuite offer the possibility of planning ahead and scheduling social media content – there are free versions for single users, or paid-for but still affordable versions that allow for combining teams. Hey, maybe it’s not fully automated luxury communism, but we’re getting there.
More about all this (and other things) tomorrow – meanwhile, feel free to post questions or comments below!