Facebook Escapes Responsibility

New Orleans    The reviews are in on Mark Zuckerberg’s trip to Washington to visit with Congress. Amazingly, he seems to have emerged largely unscathed from two days of hearings.  All reports indicate that the political class was befuddled and confused, didn’t really understand social media or grasp the full range of the business model, and let Zuckerberg skate on question after question with responses that he would have his “team” look into it and get back to them.

Is this the way a Congressional grilling works?  Is this accountability from Facebook?  An apology and another, “we’ll try harder” is about all that emerges clearly here.   That’s a bag of potato chips for dinner kind of response.  Very unfulfilling!

Not that I’m quitting.  It’s too vital for our communication.  Just minutes ago, I got a message needing urgent advice on a tenant problem in Virginia.  We use Facebook as an organizing tool many places.  We’ve opened up whole countries for ACORN organizing based on a first reach out via a message sent over the internet transom that Facebook facilitates.

Furthermore, reading how difficult it is to quit, it is also pretty clear that they have pretty much all of my information and everyone else’s as well.  I got the Facebook message that one of my almost 3000 friends had opened some random app that made me one of the 80 odd million folks that Cambridge Analytics had sucked up through their scam.  The message wasn’t a remedy and didn’t offer a fix.  Just a note that I’m one of the millions, so it’s too late for me.

But, why is this so hard to fix?  I’ve never opened an app on Facebook and never clicked on an ad.  How hard could it be to require that Facebook ask for permission to use my data?  How hard could it be for Facebook and its algorithms to block random apps from getting my stuff?  This isn’t complicated.  Why when Facebook turns its other cheek are we getting the cold shoulder?

Not that Facebook is any better than Google or any of the others.  The business model is based on ads and pimping me out along with everyone else I know to advertisers.  For the life of me I can’t understand why Congress finds that confusing.

I want a team.  I want our team in Congress to get back to Facebook and tell them to wipe the smirk off of their faces and toe the line for real not with more than vapid apologies.

How hard is it for Congress to pay attention, do its homework, and do right?  And, if it’s too hard for them to regulate Facebook and its friends, then how hard is it for us to find some new folks to go to Washington to figure it out?  The answer is simple:  it’s not that hard really.

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Cold Weather and Warm Hearts in Michigan

Detroit       I saw the picture of the woman who won the Boston Marathon in what was described as epically horrible conditions.  Normally in the embrace of a New Orleans spring I would simply shake my head and say, “why?”  Not this year, because I felt like I had lived my own version as I broke ice off of the windshield and drove to Lansing, Michigan after a meeting in downtown Detroit on midday Sunday to support the showing of “The Organizer” at the Capital City Film Festival there.  Ice was slushing along the shoulders of the highway as I drove through fog and pouring rain in both directions going and coming to be met with snow and freezing temperatures in Lansing, and, like the marathon winner, I kept asking myself, “was I crazy to continue.”  I got there in time to try and find a cup of coffee even paying almost four dollars at the Blue Owl coffeehouse there and walked in wondering whether we had all lost our minds being out in this weather at all.

Quite the contrary.  I stopped whining when minutes after I arrived John Freeman, an ACORN veteran came through the door, having driven over from Detroit as well without whining at all.  John caught me up on a statewide initiative that he was directing that would have huge impact on the environment and climate change.

 

The film was introduced by one of the coordinators of the film festival who surprised me – and probably everyone there – saying he had worked for ACORN briefly in Lansing as a canvasser on some campaign in the early 1990s.  After the film one viewer mentioned that the ACORN office in Lansing had been on the same street farther down.  He remembered visiting there when they were partnering with an organization that he served for a decade including a stint in the same location where ACORN had its office.

Several people asked about their work and how they could connect with ACORN now, and that was encouraging.  The most interesting question provoked by the film though was from a photographer who wanted to know how ACORN communicated internally as we had grown so large in the 21st century.

From a current viewer’s perspective, ten years distance is a high-speed car compared to a horse-and-buggy in the communication world that is hard to explain.  Certainly, ACORN had an effective and powerful website, but no more than half of our board had email addresses when I left in 2008.  Facebook was not ubiquitous, Twitter was virtually unknown, Slack didn’t exist.  We were right up to date for then, but it’s very old school compared to now.

There’s also no way to compare scale.  One commentator in the film talks about “building the team” and compares the time of 2008 to the seventies, eighties, and nineties.  In the 21st century we were filling out 10 to 20000 w2s for each tax season for people employed by the organization in various capacities for various lengths of time.  The community organizing staff was close to 400 organizers.  The labor staff was over 100.  The housing team was larger than that.  The ful-ltime staff was over 1000.  Could we have done better?  Absolutely!  But, comparing ACORN 21st century with previous decades was less about building a team than field a small army under different banners.  It was apples and oranges, and it was happening in a culture that that still valued the role of staff as behind-the-scenes, invisible hands, rather than leaders of the band.

In the relative vacuum of mass-based organizations at this scale today, it’s hard for people to even imagine the ACORN that frightened the right and moved the nation a decade ago.  It’s a gift to be able to share the experience and see eyes light up at the possibility of such organizations in the future.  That’s enough to bring the warmth of spring to the coldest winter day.

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