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How the Internet Organizes the Unemployed

BY Micah L. Sifry | Tuesday, July 20 2010

Unemployment, and the issue of extending unemployment benefits to the 2.5 million people whose checks ran out seven weeks ago, has been much in the news of late. Earlier this afternoon, the Senate bill cleared a procedural hurdle, and with the House expected to pass the legislation tomorrow, the new benefits should be law soon.

Curiously, considering the persistence of high unemployment, and all kinds of evidence that unemployed people are going online in huge numbers to find help (they have more spare time than the average person, don't forget), there's very little sign that anybody--government, labor unions, or other kinds of political organization--is explicitly trying to connect with the unemployed using the web. Other than the International Association of Machinists, which has a somewhat odd project called UCubed (more on this below), the big unions prefer to talk on their websites about jobs, not unemployment. The word doesn't even appear on the AFL-CIO's home page. Nor has it appeared much on the Organizing for America official blog, until a recent flurry of posts starting a few days ago attacking Senate Republicans for holding up the latest extension of benefits. House Democrats also recently launched this widget, which is basically an opportunistic attack on their political opponents, with no organizing extension or engagement option:

Right now, the topic of unemployment benefits is understandably quite hot online--it's #2 among top Google searches as I type.

But the issue of unemployment is, alas, a perennial. Google Domestic Trends shows that searches around the constellation of terms related to unemployment and social security benefits have exploded in recent years:

And if you type the words "I am unemployed..." into a Google search and see what the most popular search phrases are, you'll see this:

The first result refers to a famous George Costanza line from Seinfeld; the rest are a poignant picture of pain. And if you follow the results of any of these searches, you will not find a single government agency or labor union or activist organization to help you. Instead, the results will take you to a variety of About.com, Yahoo Answers and Metafilter pages--even a community page on Oprah.com makes an appearance. (Even conventional searches on terms like "unemployment" produce pages mostly full of news results, and oddly, for Google at least, pointers to the New York State Labor Department, even for searches from other parts of the country!)

But those search results shouldn't surprise us. On those About.com and Yahoo Answers pages are lots of ordinary people trying to help each other out online who are filling the information vacuum. In the absence of creative online organizing by institutions--old or new--that see their mission as helping the jobless, the organic dynamics of search engines and interactive results pages are, in effect, organizing the unemployed instead.

But it isn't just sites designed to capture questions and offer answers. Consider this astounding fact. There are two popular citizen-run websites that aim to make Congressional bills, votes and Members accessible to ordinary web users: OpenCongress.org and WashingtonWatch.com. (Full disclosure: OpenCongress.org is a longtime Sunlight Foundation contractor and grantee; it shares some office space here in NYC with PdF; and its co-founder, David Moore, is a friend of mine.) And on both sites, the bills pertaining to extending unemployment benefits, which come up for renewal periodically, have cumulatively gotten nearly a quarter-million comments. On OpenCongress, the top three most commented bills on the site are all about extending unemployment benefits--with more than 130,000 comments in all.

On WashingtonWatch, which tends to emphasize the cost of government programs and thus might appear to be a less hospitable place for a government entitlement program, the 2009 unemployment bill has garnered more than 150,000 comments.

On both sites, the high number of comments is a by-product of two fortuitous accidents. First, over the years they have tended to do well in organic searches for terms like "unemployment bill" or "unemployment benefits bill" (this has changed recently for Google, as the search engine is now emphasizing news results more, it appears). Right now, in the last month, OpenCongress's David Moore tells me that the current extension bill has gotten nearly 200,000 unique visits, a big chunk of the site's overall traffic. And second, unlike Thomas, the official hub for all things Congressional, both sites invite comments.

The threads that result are messy, to say the least. But two themes seem to repeat:
1. We need to get this bill passed or I'm going to starve! Call your Senator or Representative!
2. Now that it has passed, how the hell do I get my benefits check out of my state agency? How did you do it? Hang on, pardner, help is on the way--here's what I did.

In other words, the comment boards on the OpenCongress and WashingtonWatch unemployment bills pages have become, de facto, organizing networks and self-help communities for unemployed people.

The one formal effort online aimed directly at organizing unemployed people is the oddly named UCubed. The site's actual url is "unionofunemployed.com" and it seems explicitly designed to be found by unemployed searchers online. The welcome page is, indeed, welcoming:

You lost your job. You're not alone. 31 million Americans face the same challenges. You want your job back. You want your life back. But you can't do it alone. Neither can anyone else. You all need each other. That's what UCubed is here to do: Help you and 31 million other Americans organize, work together and get back to work. Let UCubed help you connect. Form a cube, and multiply your political and economic power by 6. Then by 36. Eventually, by 31 million. Take Control.

Hmm. Form a "cube"? Why just six people? (I've tried a couple of times to get a comment from Rick Sloan, the IAM organizer behind UCubed, to no avail. I'd certainly entertain his comments here, and hopefully he won't read this post as a slam.) So far, the site shows about 650 "cubes" formed on its platform, and about 2700 registered members. For such a well-designed platform, that's not much of a base. Compete.com shows the site getting about 6,000 unique visitors a month. Firedoglake's online organizer, Michael Whitney, who has in the past worked for a labor group, had this reaction to UCubed:

My initial impression from looking around the site is that it's a nice idea in theory, to connect the unemployed online, but there's *nothing to do*...You can join groups, but nothing happens in the groups. There's an inexplicable limit of 6 people per group. There's no organizing. There's no asks. They take the fact they have 2600 people who registered as a victory in itself, but nothing's happening.

Online organizing of the unemployed has a lot of potential, and IAMAW is good to have realized this and tried to meet the need. But this isn't a side project; this requires real investment in both personnel and prioritization within whatever organization takes it up. That means community management, developers, and online organizing built into the bloodstream of the site. It's absolutely not something that should be seen as, "If you build it, they will come." To meet its full potential, Ucubed, or something like it, needs serious investment on a number of fronts.

Does it even make sense to try to organize unemployed people into some kind of "union"? I doubt it. First of all, the condition of being unemployed is either something people cycle in and out of in very individual ways, or a long-term dysfunction of both the person and his or her economic context. Rather than expecting people to form tight-knit "cubes" to take action together, why not just try to form a more loose association--like a MoveOn or another e-group--of people who only share one characteristic: they need a safety net, and they need it now.

The lesson of what seems to be happening organically around sites like OpenCongress and WashingtonWatch is that even without conscious planning, hubs of likeminded individuals will find each other online and coalesce, albeit poorly and with little strong coordination, in ways that help each other get what they need. Now, imagine if we listened carefully to these signals, invented some better tools for group collaboration, set them up to do well in organic search, and then got out of the way.

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