Sian gets sucked into Facebook

The power of Facebook to the politician plus Ken Livingstone impersonators and other issues

I can hardly fit in writing a blog this week, but I have managed to grab a few minutes away from Facebook to jot a few thoughts down.

For ages and ages I resisted getting involved with this latest manifestation of web 2.0, much as I resisted the lure of a mobile phone for almost a decade. With mobiles I wanted to see if there was any lasting damage to the brain, so I let everyone else be guinea pigs for as long as possible before signing up. I had similar concerns with Facebook but a couple of weeks ago I was persuaded to set up a profile, and now I’m utterly sucked in.

As a politician, Facebook turns out to be a great way to present your views and get feedback from people. Anyone can join your groups and write comments on your ‘wall’ or start a discussion topic (my group Siân for London Mayor has picked up 168 members in just a few weeks, which is lovely) and the ability to post videos lets people see you in flesh talking about their concerns. It all makes producing leaflets to push through letterboxes look rather old school and one-sided.

However, much as I predicted, fiddling around on Facebook can use up a huge amount of time. The trouble is it’s very addictive – you can spend hours checking your ‘friend requests’, touring round the profiles of friends of friends of friends, seeing what groups they belong to and where they went on their holidays. And God help you if you start adding applications.

There are millions of these; mostly ersatz games that use Facebook’s networking capacity to create huge contests between different camps. If you join Facebook, you will quickly be inundated with invitations to take sides in an epic battle between werewolves and vampires, or approached by recruiters from the pirates, ninjas, zombies and jedis. I have been sent gifts ranging from poker chips to fish for my aquarium. I don’t think I can take on any of this responsibility so I’m steering clear of the ‘apps’ for the time being.

On the other hand, the groups on Facebook are a great way to get involved in political mischief. Looking for a group that opposes the mad Thames Gateway motorway bridge, I found one with a ‘related groups’ list showing it mainly included local Conservatives (the list is compiled automatically, based on the other groups members belong to). But, adding it to my groups brought ‘No to the Thames Gateway Bridge’ to the attention of Greens in London so, a couple of dozen new members later, the related groups were ‘Sian for London Mayor’, ‘Census Alert’, ‘Green Party’, ‘Renationalise the British Railway Network’ and ‘Campaign Against Climate Change’. Result! (Although this might change if the Tories decide to fight back.)

You see, it’s very hard not to be competitive about all this. My declared rivals in the London Mayor election next year don’t appear to be up yet officially, but there’s plenty to be jealous of in the meantime. There are literally hundreds of student Boris Johnson fan clubs on Facebook, including ‘Boris for King’, ‘Boris for Pope’ and ‘Boris Johnson for President of the World’, plus about equal numbers of ‘Re-elect Ken’ and ‘Anyone but Ken’ groups.

The most plausible Livingstone impersonator has put all the right details into his profile, but the picture seems to give the game away. Would the real Ken Livingstone have chosen to show himself standing in front of a row of bearskinned royal guards? I beg to quibble, and none of the nineteen ‘Boris Johnsons’ are very convincing either.

Facebook seems a much friendlier place than the internet at large, mainly due to the way it’s arranged in overlapping networks, so there is a danger that our efforts are only reaching natural Green supporters (not a bad thing, initially anyway). All my Facebook friends are pretty wholesome, so I rarely see anything dodgy, but I got a bit of a shock when a troll appeared on a Green Party group and posted something nasty (since removed by us). I went to have a look at his profile, and a whole world of unpleasant interest groups and right-wing nonsense was revealed, all of which I’ll continue to avoid in the future.

On the whole I’m enjoying myself at the moment, but two improvements I’d made immediately are for the admins to kick off the BNP’s groups and to heed our call to list ‘green’ as your political view (the closest their US-focused drop-down menu has at the moment is ‘very liberal’ but we have a campaign of emailing them to persuade them to change it).

These examples show Facebook’s one major drawback. Like many successful web ventures, Facebook’s success comes from its ubiquity; I can see the day when nearly everyone is on it, and this does put a lot of power into the hands of one company. I’d be very reluctant to put any truly personal information into my Facebook profile because of the US-based nature of the database and the fact that the Patriot Act means their intelligence services have easy access.

Things like not being able to list your political beliefs are relatively trivial, but the rest of the world probably has greater problems with its monolingual English interface. Britain also has to put up with enormous ‘local networks’ at the moment, with a ‘London’ network of little use compared with the ability to create one for each borough or neighbourhood. The power to do this (or to choose a fascist-free network) lies with the developers, not the users, so I’m looking forward to the Son of Facebook being a peer-to-peer system that is far more adaptable and lets us choose how we share this information and where it goes.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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In your 30s? You missed out on £26,000 and you're not even protesting

The 1980s kids seem resigned to their fate - for now. 

Imagine you’re in your thirties, and you’re renting in a shared house, on roughly the same pay you earned five years ago. Now imagine you have a friend, also in their thirties. This friend owns their own home, gets pay rises every year and has a more generous pension to beat. In fact, they are twice as rich as you. 

When you try to talk about how worried you are about your financial situation, the friend shrugs and says: “I was in that situation too.”

Un-friend, right? But this is, in fact, reality. A study from the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that Brits in their early thirties have a median wealth of £27,000. But ten years ago, a thirty something had £53,000. In other words, that unbearable friend is just someone exactly the same as you, who is now in their forties. 

Not only do Brits born in the early 1980s have half the wealth they would have had if they were born in the 1970s, but they are the first generation to be in this position since World War II.  According to the IFS study, each cohort has got progressively richer. But then, just as the 1980s kids were reaching adulthood, a couple of things happened at once.

House prices raced ahead of wages. Employers made pensions less generous. And, at the crucial point that the 1980s kids were finding their feet in the jobs market, the recession struck. The 1980s kids didn’t manage to buy homes in time to take advantage of low mortgage rates. Instead, they are stuck paying increasing amounts of rent. 

If the wealth distribution between someone in their 30s and someone in their 40s is stark, this is only the starting point in intergenerational inequality. The IFS expects pensioners’ incomes to race ahead of workers in the coming decade. 

So why, given this unprecedented reversal in fortunes, are Brits in their early thirties not marching in the streets? Why are they not burning tyres outside the Treasury while shouting: “Give us out £26k back?” 

The obvious fact that no one is going to be protesting their granny’s good fortune aside, it seems one reason for the 1980s kids’ resignation is they are still in denial. One thirty something wrote to The Staggers that the idea of being able to buy a house had become too abstract to worry about. Instead:

“You just try and get through this month and then worry about next month, which is probably self-defeating, but I think it's quite tough to get in the mindset that you're going to put something by so maybe in 10 years you can buy a shoebox a two-hour train ride from where you actually want to be.”

Another reflected that “people keep saying ‘something will turn up’”.

The Staggers turned to our resident thirty something, Yo Zushi, for his thoughts. He agreed with the IFS analysis that the recession mattered:

"We were spoiled by an artificially inflated balloon of cheap credit and growing up was something you did… later. Then the crash came in 2007-2008, and it became something we couldn’t afford to do. 

I would have got round to becoming comfortably off, I tell myself, had I been given another ten years of amoral capitalist boom to do so. Many of those who were born in the early 1970s drifted along, took a nap and woke up in possession of a house, all mod cons and a decent-paying job. But we slightly younger Gen X-ers followed in their slipstream and somehow fell off the edge. Oh well. "

Will the inertia of the1980s kids last? Perhaps – but Zushi sees in the support for Jeremy Corbyn, a swell of feeling at last. “Our lack of access to the life we were promised in our teens has woken many of us up to why things suck. That’s a good thing. 

“And now we have Corbyn to help sort it all out. That’s not meant sarcastically – I really think he’ll do it.”