MUST READ: Turning private troubles into public issues


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The internet is liberating, it gives me choice, a chance to connect, unlimited access to information and it makes me feel powerful to know it is at my fingertips.

A variety of candidates are building their digital power base for this year’s local government elections because they want my vote. However, between Facebook and my vote there’s a yawning digital divide where the power to bring about real change evaporates.  

The Living Wage Movement is going to be active in these elections. It will call for council candidates around the country to support a Living Wage so public money is spent to support healthy local communities. That call depends for its success not on a Facebook group but on social organisation, an infrastructure that enables us to act in unison for a common purpose. That’s not digital power, but power rooted in a social fabric of collectives woven together over time through conversation and joint action. Such a social fabric existed once.

In 1914 the Workers Education Association opened its NZ chapter to advance the idea that working people should have access to the learning that was only available to the moneyed privileged classes in our society.  

In 1939 the Back of the Yards Neighbourhood Council was founded in Chicago alongside the meat Packinghouse Workers Union led by Saul Alinsky. That neighbourhood brought together the organisations that played the biggest part in the lives of people there: the immigrant groups, the Catholic Church and the Union.

More recently in NZ, and within many of our memories, credit unions and union health services emerged across NZ for unionised workers, alongside workingmen’s clubs, churches and schools. “We are the union, the mighty, mighty union” we chanted on hotel picket lines in the ‘80s.

These were mediating institutions that provided the infrastructure for workers and their families to cope with the challenges of daily existence; that embodied solidarity or collectivity; and, that enabled activists, in the words of sociologist C. Wright Mills, to turn “private troubles” into “public issues.”

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The 1991 de-regulation of the labour market signalled a new design at work in which the market would dominate, facilitated by the state, and civil society would founder. This was an age of individualism.  

The internet theoretically came to our rescue because it allowed us to turn our “private troubles” into “public issues” day after day, hour after hour and minute after minute, on Facebook and Twitter, creating the new network infrastructure in our increasingly private and insulated lives.

The only problem is that we no longer own the new infrastructure, we didn’t design it and we are not doing the work required to build, maintain, refresh or give life to it in the way we might have done in past neighbourhoods, churches and unions. The infrastructure is owned by the corporate giants, like Google and Facebook; they hold the power and we are its servants.

Critiques of Facebook and big data are common now and challenge the idea that we have a great new tool to organise mass rallies, connect in solidarity and challenge injustice. Dismembered, deconstructed, commodified, commercialised – all while we are sleeping in our beds – taking a few hours out before resuming the “work” of tapping into the corporate machine of social media with our likes, dislikes, activities, opinions – and maybe the “star” we most resemble after answering 10 key questions.  

Plenty of us worry about the growth of individualism and the exploitation of workers without union rights that bring some balance to the employment relationship.  Workers don’t volunteer to be exploited. They need money because they need to live, and so generally grab the work if and where they can, on the terms offered.  

But the work we do for our Masters of Surveillance and Big Data is entirely voluntary, and it’s free of charge.  It takes individualism to whole new levels where the fragments of our private selves (our likes, dislikes, and the “star” we resemble) are extracted and re-organised as products for use or sale to make massive profits.

We do this social media thing because we are freely connecting with people, events, and issues. There are so many people I don’t have time to keep up, so many events I am scared to look at the list, so many birthdays I am embarrassed I missed, and so many groups I didn’t ask to join but I couldn’t possibly leave. But don’t get me wrong here, I am not leaving – I am a willing victim.  That is the success of the Facebook machine. Perhaps the Romantic of the future will express heroism, mystery and idealism by ending their relationship with Facebook and Big Data.

The future Romantic will dream of reversing the atomisation of our private and public selves that has made us the exploited product of social media giants. In the future Age of the Romantic we may hark back to an era in which we were social beings talking and acting together in pursuit of common goals for the common good, and where the institutions, such as unions, stepped out into civil society to share the stage in our call for shared goal, such as a Living Wage that pays the rent or supports quality education and health care. After all we all pay for low pay.

One of our Living Wage questions that brings together different classes, races and faiths in a connection that build relationships, aspiration and hope is simply; “what matters to you and your family.” It’s a whole person question, it is the person in their whole context, and it’s best asked in person.

We want our individual freedom and the powerfulness we feel as an individual on the internet but we also need the emotion inherent in the real life relationships that strengthen our social solidarity.


  1. Very Thoughtful sensitive and insightful observations Ms Newman.

    “There are so many people I don’t have time to keep up, so many events I am scared to look at the list, so many birthdays I am embarrassed I missed, and so many groups I didn’t ask to join but I couldn’t possibly leave. But don’t get me wrong here, I am not leaving – I am a willing victim. ”

    Interesting line, but you could always do as I have done – OPT OUT! I never bothered to join ‘Twitter’ and unwillingly joined ‘Facebook’ once upon a time because I needed a certain piece of information that was otherwise unavailable . . . . but haven’t bothered to keep it up.

    Frankly, IMO you give away more than you gain by belonging to these social monstrosities/subterfuges. (At the end of the day, time invested in the family is the only thing that REALLY matters.)

    • “Frankly, IMO you give away more than you gain by belonging to these social monstrosities/subterfuges.”

      So true!

      • I feel that our own home grown (NZ) Loomio, is an excellent alternative to the large international social media groups.

  2. Despite, or perhaps even “because” of the internet and technical connectivity, it seems we are less free and more manipulated than ever.

    That is what I observe. When the internet was something new and still a bit anarchic, a lot was possible, and we indeed seemed to break down barriers and gained new freedoms to communicate with each other.

    But with the rise of the great IT service providers, the social media corporations such as Facebook, Twitter and many other players now, we have become commoditised. We are a commodity to them, offering endless profile data, which they deal with on their “market place”, for billions of dollars in turnover and profits.

    State security agencies also keep an eye on what we do, more than ever before, and metadata is enough to form a profile of users on.

    And with the growth in users, now hundreds of millions if not billions of people using the web, we become mere numbers. A Facebook account and profile may still impress many users, as offering much in services and options for them, but looked at from a distance, it is nothing much more than one of what endless phone number accounts also resemble.

    Having a few friends may make people feel “networked” and connected, but that is just like a little family. On the other hand businesses, and politicians, and VIPs have their staff tweet and run Facebook messaging services, simply only to lift their profiles and get attention. They end up to enjoy mass followings, but what value does the crap have they communicate about?

    I think the internet is overly commercialised, is just a means to an end and just another huge way to communicate, but when the contents is rubbish, what is the benefit of it all?

    MSM are in on it too now, simply propagating their click bait stories and messages.

    I see little if any greater freedom that has resulted from the rise and exploitation of the modern day internet.

    And it is somewhat addictive also, forcing many to simply check constantly for new messages and click bait bits of info, as without it they feel incomplete or deficient. Online games hook many, hence we now have Pokemon Go catch ever more gamers to spend endless time with smart phones and they tablets and so.

  3. Stuff the electronic social networking – its a red herring.

    The internet provides a plethora of propaganda, lies and rubbish so education on how to deal with this is a basic essential.

    The internet also gives an unprecedented opportunity to gather information from a variety of sources as well as some sharing of opinion and sources.

    That has enabled a new understanding. It appears not all are able to discriminate nor test the veracity of what they view.

    Politics blocks a basic education on tools to assess what is presented.

  4. “But the work we do for our Masters of Surveillance and Big Data is entirely voluntary, and it’s free of charge. It takes individualism to whole new levels where the fragments of our private selves (our likes, dislikes, and the “star” we resemble) are extracted and re-organised as products for use or sale to make massive profits.”

    OMG yes! Brilliant piece Annie. Yes, social media is no substitute for real world organising, but I just beg you not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. FaceBook are the Twitter are not the internet, just two of thousands of tools that make use of it. There are hundreds of volunteer communities and social enterprises out there working on internet tools that can be owned and controlled by the people who use them, not Big Data corporations. Tools designed in ongoing collaborations with the people who use them. Tools that are accountable to their users, by making the inner workings of their programming code available to audit and modify as ‘open source’, or as I prefer to call it ‘free code’ software (respecting the software freedoms of its users).

    Activists and civil society groups need to lead the way by announcing plans to abandon “the Stacks” (as Bruce Sterling calls Google/FarceBook/Apple/Amazon etc), and actively learning about and transitioning to tools like Loomio (decision-making), OnlineGroups (email lists), SilverStripe (website software or “CMS”), CiviCRM (membership database), GNU Social (micro-blogging), Diaspora (social networking), CommunityForge (online timebanking and green dollar exchanges), and so many more. If you’d like advice on which tools to use, and how to deploy them, I suggest contacting the NZ Open Source Society:

    • Thanks for those leads, Danyl.

      Just what’s needed when your preferences lie one side or the other of the massive middle of the bell curve.

      Appreciated, indeed.

  5. I took the trouble to learn Facebook thoroughly so I could filter out all the crap and only see what I want to. Choose who I interact with. Explore what’s relevant to me without having it buried in a flood of junk. I have the friends I want and the content I want.

    Problem is, you need quite a high level of skill to do that because all Facebook’s default settings are designed to do exactly the opposite and give them a big commercial advantage.

    All I ever do on Twitter is follow journalists and bloggers who post really good links to breaking news stories, so I often get better material than the MSM who I no longer trust.

    Annie is probably right about 90% of the users of social media, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

    • I see social media as a form of slavery where people toil all day for free trying to generate gold coins by watching adds or collecting likes.

      It started with the humble cell phone that sent calls so I could be on the go and organise to meet up with friends for lunch rather than eating alone and then morphed into the smart phone where instead of meeting up you vlog or snap selfies in place of normal human interactions.

      Those of us born before the year 2000 know what it’s like to form relationships by talking to people. Now that is starting to be considered as what old people did.

  6. Annie, I think that there is a way (amongst others) to combine the power and reach of digital social media with the power and intimacy of ‘face-to-face & neighbourhood’ to strengthen the cause for a Living Wage. And it is focused on asking people one of the Living wage questions: “what matters to you and your family?”, and sharing their answers.

    I agree that this question is best asked in person, AND I think that the answers are most powerful as a social/economic change catalyst when a person sharing their story can be recorded with technology (as in Humans of New York and its many variations), and shared through social media technology.

    This ‘distribution’ offers the potential to cut across differences in geography, age groups, gender, ethnicity, income levels, etc. Such sharing, ideally through <30s video but also still images and text, enables lots of us to hear the answers/voices of people who might not be "like us" in many respects, or be people in our neighbourhood, but who are totally "like us" in that they're fellow human beings. 'Strangers' yet people towards whom we can show empathy and solidarity. 'Strangers' for whom we can take actions personally and politically that strengthen, as you put it, our social solidarity, and transform institutional arrangements like the Minimum Wage into a Living Wage.

    For a diversity of reasons, I think it's nearly impossible for governments to regulate what I call the algorithmic oligarchs (Google, Facebook, Amazon etc), as they could early last century's oligarchs and monopolists (Standard Oil and Bell). But, I think we can use social media more dynamically, in concert with local organising as Living Wage is doing, to give ourselves more power to influence governments, commerce and community. The Living Wage campaign is, as Rebecca Solnit puts it, "Hope in the Dark", a sign that community-based collaborations have the power to change national agendas.

    There's more and more evidence from neuroscience that we're born to collaborate; we are empathic; we feel better when we're doing good. Call me a futureNOW Romantic, but I think we can combine face-to-face organising and social technologies in ways that activate those neural pathways and increase our social solidarity. Combinations that would enable community activism to scale to the point that so many citizens are calling on businesses and governments to pay Living Wages and universal basic incomes that the answer has to be "yes we can, and yes, we will."

  7. the living wage campaign as I see it is really a way to establish a beach head to help organise for higher wages in a time of low union density, not keen on the psychobabble Annie uses to sell it though

    local govt Councils sure need to adopt a living wage that extends to contractors, I signed up recently for a “retrofit” insulation install and the two workers were totally exploited by various layers of lead contractors, paid by the square metre without travel expenses or degree of difficulty taken into account for each job

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