Alexandra Samuel Interview by Paul DiPerna | Blau Exchange
Alexandra Samuel Interview
moderated by Paul DiPerna
Alexandra... How did you first become interested in online
communities, and the role they may play in driving civic engagement?
home Did the online social capital research for Robert Putnam's Bowling
introduction Alone influence you?
In some ways my interest in online
communities dates back to my very earliest
days online. Not long after I first got e-mail I
subscribe to email updates
helped start an e-mail listserv for the NDP
(Canada's New Democratic Party) because
my group of wired activist friends was Samuel's Bio
RSS for interviews excited about the potential for online political
organizing. A lot of my research and professional activities over the
past fifteen years have involved working with various generations of
Paul's bio and projects online community tools, and I've always tried to push the available
Paul's email tools towards more collaborative possibilities -- for example, I was
very amused to return recently to a web site I created for a course I
taught in 2002, where I rediscovered a tool I'd built that was essentially
a rudimentary form of social bookmarking.
"Web 2.0", that online community tools have begun to tap the huge
social and collaborative potential that I think a lot of us e-democracy
practitioners have been feeling our way towards for years. For me the
beginning of Web 2.0 was the launch of 43Things in December 2004. I
joined during its first week and I'd never seen anything so compelling
in its ability to help people think together, and bridge the gap between
personal and social commitments. I was invited to help work on the
"thing" - "figure out how 43 things can be a social change tool" -- and
kept on trying to answer that question. Our latest project,
ChangeEverything.ca, was our effort to answer it.
My research for Bowling Alone has been a touchstone during a lot
of this work. It let me examine virtually the entire literature on the social
impact of the Net -- at the time, a pretty small literature -- and provided
a baseline for tracking the Net's evolution as a tool for building
communities. But I emerged much more optimistic about the Net's
potential than did Putnam himself; or rather, I emerged more
interested in how to ensure it became a useful tool than in observing
its overall impact dispassionately (which explains why I didn't stay on
the academic track!)
In our work at Social
Signal we often reference
Putnam's work, and
particularly his more recent
thinking around bonding vs
bridging social capital, to
discipline our thinking
about how to build tools
that promote social capital.
As geeks it's really easy to get caught up in what might be a really
funky feature, and we try to step back and ask ourselves whether that
feature will actually help people create and sustain meaningful
relationships. I'm really interested in how online relationships can
develop the same degrees of depth, trust and personal significance as
face-to-face relationships -- with comparable impacts on economic,
social and political outcomes.
Can you describe a little bit your dissertation on "hacktivism"?
My dissertation looked at the phenomenon of hacktivism, which I
defined as the nonviolent use of illegal or legally ambiguous digital
tools in pursuit of political ends. These tools include web site
defacements, redirects, denial-of-service attacks, information theft,
web site parodies, virtual sit-ins, virtual sabotage, and software
development. I interviewed 50 hacktivists (though not all used the
term) and used the interview data in conjunction with additional
primary and secondary source material to construct a taxonomy of
hacktivism, and to apply the taxonomy to three core issues in political
participation: the role of identity incentives in driving participation, the
transnational politics of policy circumvention, and the aspirations for
deliberative democracy online. It was a truly remarkable experience to
interview so many brilliant, committed, tech-savvy folks, who in many
ways inspired and prepared me for my work at Social Signal: what I
got from the dissertation was not just a theoretical perspective on
what motivates people to participate in political work online, but also a
tremendously helpful acculturation to the world of politicized
programmers -- the world of people with whom I now work.
What was your dissertating experience like at Harvard?
My ultimate experience at
Harvard was terrific -- my two "...none of them
Harvard committee members, Sid made me
Verba and Torben Iversen, were jump through
incredibly generous, as was my hoops..."
external committee member, Dick
Johnston (now of U. Penn). None of them work with the Internet as
their primary field of research, but they all engaged with the
substantive and theoretical questions I raised and provided helpful
interventions to keep my research focused and my arguments as
sharp as possible. None of them made me jump through hoops for the
sake of jumping through hoops!
That said, before I found these committee members, I had a really
hard time getting going on an Internet-related topic. I first decided to
work on an Internet-related topic in 1996, and made the classic grad
student mistake of trying to tackle a much-too-big question by framing
my first several proposals in ways that would have proven impossible
to convincingly tackle. But I was also challenged by the fact that 1996
was pretty early days in Internet terms, and I had a lot of feedback to
the effect of "what makes you think the Internet is more significant than
the typewriter?" When I had the opportunity to become research
director for the Governance in the Digital Economy program, which
involved researching a wide range of e-democracy issues, it seemed
like a great way to get some distance from the challenge of
formulating a researchable topic. When the program wrapped up in
2001 I was ready to bite off a smaller chunk (hacktivism) and by then
people had stopped asking why I thought the Internet was more
significant than the typewriter.
How did these early influences help pave the way to founding
Social Signal really came out of two different sets of experiences:
my experience researching online participation and e-democracy for
my dissertation research and for the Governance program, and my
partner Rob Cottingham's experience developing public education and
campaign web sites for progressive causes. As a two-geek household
we've always been prone to spending evenings side-by-side on our
laptops, messing around with various web sites, and by 2005 we were
both spending a lot of that time blogging, and I was spending a lot of
my time exploring (and blogging about) social bookmarking and RSS. I
wrote an article about tagging for the Toronto Star, and that, combined
with my blogging, started to bring people to my door with requests for
advice about online community strategy...and that strategy work then
turned into work managing the implementation of online community
We've discovered strong demand for our particular combination of
political/communications expertise and technical expertise, because it
allows us to translate our clients' strategic and communications goals
into technical decisions. So when we configure a blog for one of our
clients, and we're trying to decide whether to make comments
moderated or unmoderated, it's not just based on the human or
technical burdens of comment moderation, but on the message that is
conveyed to our clients' audiences by having comments that are
instant vs. delayed, or occasionally profane vs. suspiciously groomed.
How do you determine what may work great for one community of
users may not be appropriate for another online community? Do you
do survey research? Or do you concentrate more on analyzing actual
We use a combination of approaches to develop a concept or
strategy for each community that is appropriate to its particular
audience. We begin with common sense, and some knowledge about
what demographics are online and in what degree: there's no point in
creating an online community with all the latest bells and whistles for a
community that is mostly made up of people who just use e-mail and
google. That's one of the reasons we enjoy working with technology
companies: it gives us a chance to work with users who are very tech-
savvy, and lets us try things out before we adapt them to audiences
that need a narrower feature set and more straightforward interface.
We do use surveys, interviews, focus groups and workshops to get
a sense of the targeted users and their needs. The challenge lies in
finding ways to ask people how much they'd value tools that they've
never encountered, but which we can in fact make usable, relevant
and engaging for them.
One critical part of our approach -- and which I owe to Mark
Surman of telecentre.org, our first major Drupal client -- is that we're
iterative. We try to resist building our own dream version of each
community, with all the features we think could possibly be useful: that
just overwhelms users and turns them off. Instead we start with what
we think are the absolute core minimum features, add one or possibly
two things that we think are interesting and engaging add-ons, and
then throw that beta open to see what people actually use on the site,
what does or doesn't work for them, and what they want to see added.
That approach is partly a function of pragmatism -- why build a
bunch of features that will never get used? -- and partly a function of
ideological commitment: an iterative approach is simply more
democratic, in that it gives users of a community ownership over how
that community evolves. Since social web sites often succeed or fail
according to the credibility of their commitment to community
ownership or community empowerment, it just makes sense to give
the community as much control as possible over what gets built, when
and how. And surprise! the community does the best job of making
I understand that Social Signal has been working with NetSquared
for some time now. What kind of work are you doing for them?<
NetSquared is actually a great example of the kind of iterative
approach I just described. We were initially brought into the project by
Marnie Webb, CompuMentor's VP of Knowledge Services -- for whom
I'd cross an eight-lane information superhighway. ;) Marnie's team had
decided to use Drupal to create an online community that would
support the NetSquared conference; both the site and the conference
were aimed at supporting nonprofits in their explorations of the social
web (aka web 2.0)
Marnie brought us into develop and then ultimately implement the
web strategy for NetSquared. The visual design was created by Veerle
Pieters, a CSS goddess I'd love to work with again; the design was
implemented by Courtney Miller of Floatleft, who is a killer Drupal
themer and who also worked with us on Vancity's ChangeEverything.
But other than the visual design of the site, we set up most of what
you see on NetSquared, helping them develop their feature list,
configure the site, and support their users. We also ran the live online
conference (in Gabbly, a fantastic tool!) that paralleled the live
conference at Cisco headquarters in May.
I say it was a great example of the iterative approach because
when we launched NetSquared it was basically a blog, some case
studies, and some interviews. Over the course of the first year we
added features one at a time in response to user interest; then we did
some follow-up interviews and decided to restructure those features to
simplify the site for users. It continues to evolve, but what has
remained constant is the commitment of the whole team -- not just us,
but the wonderful folks we're working with at CompuMentor -- to
adapting the site to the needs of the user community.
I interviewed Craig Newmark a few weeks ago, and he is excited
about Congresspedia. Do you think there are legs to this project to
become a new kind C-SPAN, bringing more sunshine to American
I've only had a peek at the site so I don't feel like I'm in a position to
How do you think (if at all) wiki's could benefit civic participation?
Have you seen any creative initiatives in this area?
My perspective is that the social web is divided into two kinds of
people: the wiki people and the blog people. I'd love to organize a big,
muddy tug-of-war at the next Web 2.0 conference and divide the
whole crowd into those two teams.
I have to confess that I'm personally more of a blog person. I think
wikis have tremendous value, but I'm a lot more passionate about
blogs, largely because I've seen wiki markup alienate and confuse a
lot of people over the years. A blog is a much easier concept for
people to grasp, and blog software became easy for people to use
quite a while before wikis became really user-friendly.
That said, the latest generation of wiki software is really easy to
use, and there are a lot of options out there now for people who aren't
comfortable with anything that doesn't feel like Microsoft Word. Wikis
are a particularly good choice for projects that involve collaboration
among a small or specific team, where people can take responsibility
for their contributions.
In terms of examples, my favourite example of a more open wiki
project was the Daily KOS/ACLU collaboration in reviewing files on
Guantanamo prisoners. They made it possible for anyone to review a
file and mark it for review by a lawyer if needed. This was a brilliant
way to help plough through an absolute mountain of documentation.
Alexandra, what do you think are the most common mistakes that
young organizations tend to make when building online communities?
Any high-profile examples?
Let me begin by noting that young organizations are no more likely
to make mistakes in their community-building than are well-
established organizations; if anything, they're less likely, because
they're less constrained by conventional ideas about message control.
But anyone who's new to the social web has certain challenges and
there are certainly are some mistakes we see more often.
The most common mistake is to focus all the attention, energy and
resources on building the technical structure of a community, without
thinking about the social structure. I was lucky to work on
telecentre.org with Mark Surman, the Managing Director of that
project, who made a point of allocating several times more dollars for
animating and supporting his online community than he'd allocated to
actually building the web infrastructure. We encourage our clients to
think about spending at least as much on supporting their community
as they do on setting it up -- maybe not the first year, when your
technical costs are front-loaded, but certainly over time. If you haven't
got a budget to pay for site animation (aka moderation), ongoing
content development, and participant incentives (like contest prizes),
then you're wasting your money by building an online community.
Better to take half your budget, set it aside for the support of the
community itself, and build a more modest site in the first place.
When we design a site we create an activity plan as well as a site
architecture so that our clients think through ongoing support of the
site as well as set up.
Another mistake -- and again, I learned this from Mark -- is to try to
build everything at once. You really don't know what features your
community will and won't use until you go live, and a huge number of
features just overwhelms the user and creates a huge usability
problem. Better to build with a light core feature set and then expand in
response to what the community itself thinks is important.
One more common mistake is to get caught up in the idea of
what's cool or trendy, rather than what resonates with the message of
your particular organization. I myself am I huge geek and a sucker for
the latest bells and whistles -- as a site observer or user, but not as a
site creator. When you're building a site you have to get beyond the
fact that YouTube is the latest hip thing, or podcasting, or whatever it
is this week, and focus on what kind of site structure is sustainable for
your organization, and effective for carrying your message.
I can't bring myself to name examples, though, because I hate to
discourage anyone's efforts at using this new toolkit, however
confounded those efforts may become. Clay Shirky recently
commented that the default state of online communities is failure -- it's
just very, very hard to engage an audience to the degree that they're
going to contribute actively to your site. We've figured out some ways
of maximizing the odds of success, but it's not easy, and I'm very
sympathetic to any organization that has a sense of the importance of
the social web, and the courage to dip a toe in the waters.
Who are some of your favorite bloggers, writers, or researchers
when it comes to following development of the Social Web?
'm such an aggregation junkie that I tend not to read specific blogs -
- I follow specific tags, like Web 2.0 and nptech, and read the relevant
stories that pop up that way.
How do you keep up with the latest online innovations, or latest
Social Web research? Do you have a routine?
Happily, while the world of social media creates a whole bunch of
new ideas to keep track of, it also offers a whole bunch of new tools
for tracking them. My core tool for tracking trends is my personal
Google homepage; it's the only thing I reliably see every day (and in
fact, every hour). It features RSS feeds for key news sources, plus the
del.icio.us popular feed (a great way to keep up with what people are
buzzing about, including a lot of social media trends and web apps),
the feed for the nptech tag (a good source of nonprofit tech news), the
NetSquared blog (nonprofit web 2.0 news) and my own delicious "for"
tag (stuff people have stored to delicious and sent my way).
I also have a bloglines account that is full of feeds for different
social media sites and bloggers, which I check into when I have time
or am looking for inspiration for a blog post of my own. And I like to
check in regularly on del.icio.us pages for tags like SecondLife and
Web2.0, or better yet, the "popular" versions of those pages.
But word of mouth is probably my most important source of Web
2.0 info. I try to make it to a social web conference every few months;
this spring I'll be heading to Northern Voice, a Vancouver-based
blogging conference that had a big impact on my early thinking about
social media, and NTen's Nonprofit Technology Conference, where I
get the social change spin on Web 2.0 as well as a broader
perspective on nonprofit tech challenges. That's useful because it
reminds me that lots of nonprofits are still just getting started with Web
2.0, or aren't even thinking about social media because they're still
dealing with nuts-and-blots issues like contact management.
The truth is that there's no way to truly keep up with the expanding
social web. A year or two ago you could follow one of a handful of sites
that announced each and every new Web 2.0 project; now they're
proliferating so quickly that there's no way to keep up with the whole
picture. What's important to me is to check out enough new sites,
frequently enough, that I never lose my sense of excitement about the
new possibilities for collaboration and social networking, and my thrill
that I get to help great organizations make effective use of that
Any predictions for the Social Web in 2007?
What could be a big news story?
That's a brave question I'm foolish enough to try to answer! Well,
we're betting that the big story is going to be Second Life -- we've just
hired a fabulously talented Second Life expert, Catherine Winters (aka
Catherine Omega) who is one of the co-authors of the Official Guide
to Second Life and the leading authority on Second Life scripting.
She's starting up a Second Life practice for us because we think that
the burgeoning interest in SL is about to flower into some very
interesting developments in online community. SL has grown from the
same principle of user-driven content that we've seen explode as "web
2.0", and in SL it's woven into every facet of community life and
available in a richly immersive form. Once people get beyond the
"legos and barbies" approach to SL (I'm borrowing Catherine's line,
there) I think we'll see new forms of collaboration and knowledge
sharing emerge. I suspect we'll also see people combining Second
Life activities with "conventional" web 2.0 communities, which is
something we're particularly interested in.
The other development I expect to see more of is what we call
"reflected glory marketing" -- the kind of project we did with Vancity,
ChangeEverything.ca. The idea here is not to create an advertising or
marketing site per se, but rather to create an interesting online
community that is somehow thematically or symbolically resonant of
the sponsoring company's brand. This use of the social web will grow
because it's the most promising way for most for-profits to tap into the
power of the social web, and with all the Web 2.0 hype they're not
going to sit this one out. But you can't expect crowds of people to get
involved in something that is a pure brand/advertising play, except for
a very few brands that have broad cultural appeal, or a larger number
of small brands that have niche cultural appeal. For everybody else,
the best way to leverage the social web is to create an online
community that has intrinsic value, and let the activities of that
community reflect positively on the parent company's brand.
And I think the other thing we'll see -- maybe not in 07, but if not
then in 08 -- is the collapse of a major Web 2.0 site/company, followed
by a lot of hand-wringing over how this is proof that Web 2.0 is another
Internet bubble. But what will differentiate this story from its year-2000
antecedents will be that the community will survive the site. Any online
community big enough to constitute a major site will have enough
committed users to survive the collapse of the company/business
model that floated the site in the first place. That's the big difference
between the dot-com bubble and the Web 2.0 hype: yes, there's a lot
of hype, but it's built on something real, namely the commitment and
contributions of all those site users. These are folks who will figure out
how to reconstitute their communities and tools, no matter what
happens to the business models that brought them into being.
What are some of the projects that you will be working on in 2007?
We're continuing to work with Vancity on ChangeEverything.ca,
and with CompuMentor on NetSquared. We're also just getting
underway on several great nonprofit projects, which share the
common element of taking an entrepreneurial approach to the web:
we're going to create online communities that provide ongoing revenue
streams to support the sites themselves, and hopefully cross-
subsized the parent NGO too. I'm a bit limited in the extent to which I
can name names, but I can mention one of these clients: PLAN (the
Planned Lifetime Advocacy Network) a fantastic organization that
works with families of people with disabilities, and has long been a
pioneer in taking an entrepreneurial approach to community service.
We'll also have some Second Life projects to announce in the next
several months, which we're very excited about. News on these
projects will be on our web site and in our newsletter, which folks can
subscribe to by visiting http://www.socialsignal.com.
January 17, 2007
Paul, thank you for this interview.
What a wealth of tremendous information and ideas. This
may be my favorite piece, but I don't want to discount the
rest of the interview:
"the best way to leverage the social web is to create an
online community that has intrinsic value, and let the
activities of that community reflect positively on the parent
Niels Teunis | January 18, 2007 at 11:28 AM
Niels, Thanks for posting here..
Alexandra was gracious throughout the whole interview
process (which can take weeks depending on schedules),
and I thought her responses were very insightful. I think her
company, Social Signal, is on an upward trajectory and
seems increasingly influential especially among academic
centers and non-profits - sectors where I think online
communities and their apps have the most natural fit.
Thanks again for taking time out to comment.
Paul DiPerna | January 18, 2007 at 12:32 PM
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