Alexandra Samuel Interview by Paul DiPerna | Blau Exchange

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January 19, 2007

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Alexandra Samuel Interview by Paul DiPerna | Blau Exchange

  1. 1. Site Search Alexandra Samuel Interview moderated by Paul DiPerna 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? themes Alexandra Samuel: interviews index 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. comments policy privacy policy But it's really just been in the past couple of years, with the rise of "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
  2. 2. face-to-face relationships -- with comparable impacts on economic, social and political outcomes. Paul DiPerna: Can you describe a little bit your dissertation on "hacktivism"? Alexandra Samuel: 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. Paul DiPerna: What was your dissertating experience like at Harvard? Alexandra Samuel: 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. Paul DiPerna: How did these early influences help pave the way to founding Social Signal? Alexandra Samuel: Social Signal really came out of two different sets of experiences: my experience researching online participation and e-democracy for
  3. 3. 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 sites. 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. Paul DiPerna: 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  online behavior? Alexandra Samuel: 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 those decisions. Paul DiPerna:
  4. 4. Paul DiPerna: I understand that Social Signal has been working with NetSquared for some time now.  What kind of work are you doing for them?< Alexandra Samuel: 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. Paul DiPerna: 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 politics? Alexandra Samuel: I've only had a peek at the site so I don't feel like I'm in a position to comment. Paul DiPerna: How do you think (if at all) wiki's could benefit civic participation? Have you seen any creative initiatives in this area? Alexandra Samuel: 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.
  5. 5. 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. Paul DiPerna: Alexandra, what do you think are the most common mistakes that young organizations tend to make when building online communities? Any high-profile examples? Alexandra Samuel: 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. Paul DiPerna: Who are some of your favorite bloggers, writers, or researchers when it comes to following development of the Social Web? Alexandra Samuel:
  6. 6. '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. Paul DiPerna: How do you keep up with the latest online innovations, or latest Social Web research?  Do you have a routine? Alexandra Samuel: 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 potential. Paul DiPerna: Any predictions for the Social Web in 2007? What could be a big news story? Alexandra Samuel: 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
  7. 7. 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. Paul DiPerna: What are some of the projects that you will be working on in 2007? Alexandra Samuel: 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 Comments (2) 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 company's brand."
  8. 8. 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 home | interviews index | Join the email list | RSS for interviews | Paul's email Blau Exchange, est. 2006 | Blau Exchange, All Rights Reserved 2006-2008 site design by gralmy

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