Freelancers, unions use social media to build online, offline community

From ‘binders’ to meetups, writers are reaching out to each other. Continue Reading Freelancers, unions use social media to build online, offline community

When Toronto-based writer and editor Anna Fitzpatrick started the Facebook group Binders Full of Women Writers in 2014, there was little indication it would spark a movement to support women and gender non-conforming writers.

But there’s now an array of gender-based “Binders”-themed secret or closed Facebook groups open to women and gender non-conforming writers around the world.

The Binders groups’ names are a détournement of a Mitt Romney comment. During a 2012 presidential debate, Romney referred to “binders full of women” applicants for cabinet positions when he was Governor of Massachusetts.

Binders’ group administrators have said that secrecy is important to protect members and provide them with a “safe space.”

“The Binder is intended as a space for sensitive conversations; we want our members to feel like they can safely have those conversations, without fear that their comments will show up in a friend’s feed,” said Lux Alptraum, a Binders Full of Women Writers moderator.

Alptraum cofounded the nonprofit Out of the Binders, Inc. with Leigh Stein in 2014. They run two annual BinderCon conferences in New York and Los Angeles for women and gender non-conforming writers.

“Through our year-round online community and twice yearly in-person conferences we connect these writers with the skills, knowledge, and networking opportunities they need to get ahead as authors, journalists, screenwriters, TV writers, playwrights, poets, and more,” they said on the BinderCon website.

Building local freelance communities

When graphic designer Saeid Halvaeian quit his day job and turned to freelancing full time in 2013, he had no plans to launch six Meetup and Facebook groups for freelancers across the United States.

Although Halvaeian, a Houston-based freelancer, was comfortable with the creative side of graphic design, he knew little about the business side of freelancing. So he launched a group called Houston Freelance Graphic Designers to learn more. Five people attended the first monthly meetup at a local coffee shop to talk about the freelance business.

“The basic premise was getting people together around a common interest and meeting in the real world,” Halvaeian said in a phone interview. “My original intent was to get information from people who have their own businesses and learn from them, and take the lessons I learn from them and use them in my business.”

Halvaeian started the Facebook group for members to communicate online between the meetups.

“We had such great conversations once a month, so I thought, ‘What a shame we meet only 12 times out of 365 days. Let’s establish some sort of way to communicate online,’” he said. “(The Facebook group) is a place where, every day, people get to ask questions and get answers from any of the members.”

Almost five years later, the group—now called Houston Freelance Creatives—boasts nearly 1,000 members. The expanded group includes designers, photographers, writers and other creative workers.

Halvaeian also oversees The Freelance Creatives groups in Seattle, Chicago, Los Angeles, Nashville and San Antonio. Local organizers host meetups in these cities with a $10 entry fee, tailoring them to members’ interests.

Halvaeian said his reasons for hosting the meetups eventually became less individualistic after he saw fellow freelancers reaping the benefits.

“There were people coming to the events who had too much work and they needed to hand it off to someone, and there were some people showing up who didn’t have enough work. My community was a place where people could come together and help each other out,” he said. “People would leave the meetings feeling very inspired, and that inspiration would carry them on into the next time we met.”

Building community to market freelance business products

While Halvaeian expanded his online freelance network from Meetup to Facebook, Steve Ashby initially launched a Facebook group to generate interest in his web-based business.

Ashby, a Dubai-based freelancer, runs Businessmentals, a startup specializing in business planning and processes for freelancers. Ashby launched the first iteration of Businessmentals in 2014, but used Facebook to help rebrand in December 2017.

“The idea behind the Facebook group was to build the community first and not to use it so much as a direct sales force, but to build a community of people, and then over a period of time, introduce what we’re doing,” said Ashby in a Skype interview. “It was like an invitation to come and have a look as opposed to ramming it down their throats.”

Businessmentals sells three products, A “Pre-Launch Checklist” guide, a “Freelance Business Plan,” and a “Quote to Cash Pack,” which includes templates to ensure freelancers quote accurately and get paid promptly.

“You can get all that stuff free, but you don’t get the community that goes with it, you don’t get the advice, you don’t get the contacts, you don’t get the process flow,” Ashby said. “So that’s why we think it’s worth spending a little bit of money with us and getting something that works perfectly as soon as you open it.”

Ashby said the Facebook group has helped Businessmentals in another important way.

“Most of the people on the team who have put together the amazing graphics or done the web development actually came from the Facebook group,” he said.

Ashby’s team members collaborate, even though they’re based in different countries, including the US, India, the Philippines, New Zealand, Australia, Scotland and the Czech Republic.

“The biggest thing I’ve noticed is the sense of community in how people are meeting up in the group and then going off and pursuing things together even though they’re in different parts of the world,” he said.

How do unions use Facebook to support freelancers?

“Joining a Facebook group is freer than union dues, and there’s a seed of solidarity all the same,” said Emily Greenhouse in Vogue after the original Binders Full of Writing Jobs was launched.

But unions like the Canadian Media Guild Freelance Branch also have closed Facebook groups—British Columbia Media Freelancers and Atlantic Canada Media Freelancers. These regionally-themed Facebook groups provide outlets for “freelancers to connect and post interesting or useful links,” according to the group descriptions. These groups have about 400 members combined.

By joining CMG Freelance, members also get business tips, community support and more. The CMG advocates for freelance workers’ rights, offers members advice on negotiating contracts, holds workshops and social events, provides access to online training and webinars and offers access to group health insurance benefits.

Despite their differences, CMG Freelance, Businessmentals, The Freelance Creatives and Binders demonstrate the power of social media to build community among freelancers. More importantly, all of these social media groups are merely one part of a broader online strategy resulting in offline action.

A version of this story first appeared on the Story Board. 

Errol Salamon is a contributing editor at J-Source. He is a senior lecturer in digital media and communication in the department of media and performance at the University of Huddersfield. He taught in the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota. Salamon is also co-editor of the book Journalism in Crisis: Bridging Theory and Practice for Democratic Media Strategies in Canada (University of Toronto Press, 2016).