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Alexandra Samuel and the Soul of the Internet
Jon Lebkowsky, 3 Dec 07
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We liked Alexandra Samuel's recent, widely distributed post, "Five Ways to Shape the Soul of the Internet" so much that we asked her to join us in a conversation about her work and her writing, especially the "Soul of the Internet" piece. The resulting interview is packed with good thinking about contemporary web practices.

Alexandra is CEO of the clueful social web consultancy Social Signal.

JL: Could you start by telling us a little bit about your background, and your work with Social Signal?

AS: I started researching the political potential of the Internet while working on a Ph.D. in political science at Harvard. One of my first projects was doing background research about the Internet's impact on social capital for Robert Putnam's book, Bowling Alone. I also took a three-year leave to lead the research for Don Tapscott's project on "Governance in the Digital Economy", which looked at the future of e-democracy and political engagement for a consortium of about twenty governments around the world. One of the members of the research team, Anthony Williams (more recently Don's co-author on Wikinomics) wrote a white paper that referenced the emerging phenomenon of "hacktivism". I got interested in hacktivism (politically-motivated computer hacking) as a window on what motivates online political engagement, and returned to my Ph.D. to write a dissertation about hacktivism and online participation.

When I finished my Ph.D. in 2004, I returned to consulting on online political participation, just as Web 2.0 sites were starting to emerge. My husband Rob and I both saw the participatory dynamics of Web 2.0 tools as the realization of the Internet's potential for grassroots mobilization, and did a lot of blogging about RSS and tagging. People started calling us for advice on projects that used tags or RSS, and before we knew it, we had a consulting business focused on helping people use Web 2.0 tools to mobilize user participation and contribution.

As Social Signal, we think of ourselves as participation designers first, and web developers second. We focus on three stages in the development process:

  • creating community concepts that help our clients open a conversation with their target audience (like, where we helped create a community that lets people blog about changes they want to make in their lives, their communities, or the world);
  • figuring out the specific features and technical requirements for the community our clients want to create (like helping NetSquared create a case study collection that's browseable by topic or technology); and
  • developing the content and activities that bring a community to life and engage its users (for example, creating a set of Halloween energy monsters for BC Hydro's Green Gifts application on Facebook).

At each of these stages in the development process we focus on how we're going to foster user contribution and participant engagement – how we're going to create a community that's truly alive.

JL: You mention Web 2.0, and I think that label has different meanings for different people, and many have only a vague sense of it's meaning. What does it mean to you? What do you think had changed about the web by 2004 or so?

AS: We often talk about the "social web" or "user-driven web sites" rather than Web 2.0, because "Web 2.0" is such an opaque term – it doesn't really illuminate what is significant about how the web has evolved in the past few years. Blogging made it easy for more and more people to write for the web, and then a range of other sites and tools have come along that make it easy for people to post photos, videos, or now, connect through a range of social networks. That's enabled a shift away from sites that focus on pushing a message out to visitors, and instead, the latest generation of web sites invite users into a conversation. As part of that shift, the most exciting sites on the web are authored by lots of people, as opposed to "old-fashioned" sites, which had something more like a single author (or at least, a single corporate voice).

What has us excited about the way the web has shifted – away from single author message "push" and towards multi-author conversations – is how that shift corresponds to what we've learned in the past 30 or 40 years in a whole range of fields that are key to social change. Starting with pressure for public input into environmental and urban policy-making in the 1960s, public policy-making has become more and more participatory, with the most innovative policy processes recognizing that the best policies reflect the knowledge and values of as many people as possible. Over the same period, and particularly in the past decade, non-profit leaders and social activists have recognized that the most powerful and effective social movements build on grassroots organizing and true bottom-up leadership. And of course, the tech sector has discovered that decentralized, non-hierarchical, open source development processes also lead to the best outcomes.

Social web tools – tools like blogging, image sharing, and social networking – provide a context for communications and creativity that is comparably inclusive, participatory, and bottom-up. And when you think that the most powerful political, social and technical innovations of the past three or four decades have all emerged from user-driven, participatory models, it's pretty exciting to see more and more people engaged in those kinds of participatory communities online.

JL: In working over the last fifteen years with participation online, including work with online grassroots organizing and group-forming around policy initiatives, I've seen some problem with participatory initiatives and environments. It's hard to scale from few to many. Not everyone has the same information and the same understanding, and that can cause disconnects that often aren't well-addressed. Bad actors can appear and manipulate or derail conversations. How do you see us working through (or around) these issues?

AS: Great questions! One of the things that's really interesting about helping organizations transition to participatory web sites is that there's huge variation in comfort levels and expectations about participation. Some organizations have been soul-scarred by public meetings or ventures that seem only to bring out the cranks and critics; others are incredibly optimistic and expect that as soon as they throw open their virtual doors, their site will be abuzz with conversation and contribution.

There's no technical solution for the various human foibles that can make online participation problematic....any more than there is a technical approach that can call forth the uniquely human virtues of creativity, passion and compassion (all of which make the difference between a ho-hum site and a thriving community). We are strong advocates for effective community animation – we like to talk about animation and moderation because it keeps people focused on the real challenge of encouraging meaningful and active contribution, rather than the red herring of discouraging flaming and other antisocial behaviours. If you build a community of passionate participants they will manage antisocial behaviours themselves by responding directly to people who try to derail the conversation.

"Effective community animation" is a tough creature to pin down, however. We think of a great community animator as a great party host: not someone who dominates the party by telling her own stories from the head of the table, but someone who brings interesting people together, creates a safe, fun and comfortable place to open up, and then reminds them of what they have to say to each other. That translates into some very practical guidelines:

  • spend at least as much on staffing (including not only animation but also content creation and other community-building activities) as you do on technology (thanks to Mark Surman for that formative insight);
  • hire an animator who is invested in the issues/mandate of your specific community; err on the side of under-moderating (by leaving problematic posts to stand or fall on their own merits);
  • be as transparent as possible about your motivations and limitations;
  • figure on spending 2-4 times as much effort in eliciting 250 words worth of contribution from someone else as it would take you to write that 250 words yourself, but know it's worth it.

  • It all comes down to investing in active support for your contributors: support that makes it easy, fun and meaningful to participate in your community.

And yet technology has a role too. A key part of our approach to building active communities is to see each site as part of a larger ecosystem; you don't need every blog post or image to be posted on your own site, if what you care about is having people talk about the issues you are raising, the brand you are trying to promote, or the site you are trying to make known. So we rely heavily on tagging and RSS to move content in and out of all the communities we work on: if you want someone to blog on your site, you need to make it easy for them to reblog that post onto their external blog (which means outbound RSS feeds for each contributor) and if you want people to blog about your site so people find you, it helps to drive traffic their way too (for example, by linking to anything someone writes about you on your site – which is easy if you use RSS to aggregate anything with your URL in it).

None of that erases the schmuck factor, of course. But if you have a site with hundreds or even thousands of contributions a day, the occasional flame isn't going to destroy you.

JL: You recently wrote "Five ways to shape the soul of the Internet," influenced by Lynne Twist's _The Soul of Money_. How were you inspired to apply thinking about money to your thinking about online interaction?

AS: We received "The Soul of Money" as a gift from Jeff Balin, an executive coach who worked with us to launch Social Signal and who has been instrumental in shaping our work. One of the ways that Jeff has been crucial to the business is helping us get comfortable with money; Iike a lot of progressive folks, we tend to associate money with "the system" or "the problem", which makes us pretty uncomfortable with all things financial – but when you have a business, you have to get comfortable dealing with money.

What struck me in reading The Soul of Money is how my general discomfort with money is not unlike the discomfort a lot of people feel around technology. Rob and I live at the intersection of two worlds – the webby, social media scene, on the one hand, and the progressive/sustainability scene on the other. Many of our sustainability friends are bemused by our techiness; they see the Internet as another way that people are taken out of the real world of human interaction and connection to the natural world. I've rolled with their disinclination to engage online; but reading Twist's book made me think about how we could help these techno-skeptics to get more comfortable with technology, the same way that we need to get more comfortable with money.

After all, the whole reason we work online is because we believe that the Internet is crucial to what comes next: crucial to achieving meaningful social, political and environmental change. Precisely because they are uneasy about the Internet – precisely because they value human interaction and connection to the natural world – environmentalists and community activists need to engage with the net. Online networks are too important to be left to the people who don't worry about their impact; these spaces must be shaped by people who care about sustainability, social justice, and meaningful connection.

The best way for the Internet to realize its potential is for more and more people to bring their best instincts, their social values, and their political consciousness to every online interaction. My blog post about "5 ways to shape the soul of the Internet" was a first step towards mapping out what that looks like, by providing some practical guidelines for how to engage effectively online.

JL:How do the five ways resonate with your own experience? I.e. are there examples from your own life and work that validate the suggestions you make?

AS: I guess I should have seen that coming, but it's only now that it occurs to me to look back at the list with my own experiences in mind. Let's see:

  • Give your attention to sites, people and organizations that reflect your true values.
  • One of the joys in working for sustainable businesses and community organizations is that much of my work involves spending time on sites that represent the very best of the web. If you were to do a quick audit of my currently-open tabs, you'd find:

    I promise, I didn't close down any porn or gambling pages before that run-through. And I'm by no means perfect – catch me at another moment and I'll have 15 tabs worth of Wonder Woman items open in eBay. But I have found that my own experience of the Internet, and my feelings about fellow web-surfers, have a lot to do with where I'm spending my time. And I find that the times when I'm most charged and regenerated by web time are the nights I've spent blogging or otherwise creating for the web – often engaging actively with other people's work or posts, so I feel like I'm really part of a community.

  • Find love online....We need to bring the very highest qualities of empathy, respect and affection to our online as many contexts as possible.
  • My partner, Rob Cottingham, has helped me learn to take the high road, even when I'm tempted to take the low road. The best example of this was a blog exchange I got into about a year ago, when I brought our then-3-month-old baby with me to a conference. Someone wrote a critical blog post about seeing a baby at the conference, but rather than yielding to my initial urge to write a serious flame in response, I took the occasion as a reminder to write a blog post I'd been planning on combining business travel and parenting. I felt really good about finally getting that post down on virtual paper, and the person who'd criticized my bringing the baby along responded with a very thoughtful acknowledgement of the issues he had not previously considered.

    Time and again, when I've responded quickly in anger – which it's all too easy to do, given the speed of online communications – I've lived to regret it. And every time I've waited it out, or reached beyond that initial reaction to find some sort of empathy or commonality, I've been rewarded with a greater sense of community and connectedness.

  • Let down your guard...Experiment to find out whether your truest self emerges from anonymity, or from disclosure.
  • When I wrote my dissertation on hacktivism, one of the behaviors I investigated was the selective use of anonymity and pseudonymity among hackers. What I discovered was that the use of consistent pseudonyms provided a way for people to create some kind of reputation or accountability over time, without assuming the personal or legal risk that comes with using real names. I'm personally comfortable with a high degree of disclosure, so I almost always write or blog under my real name (or usual handle, awsamuel); but I've had great online exchanges with people using handles, and enjoy the sense of freedom and candor that comes from those conversations.

    The one place I absolutely don't let my guard down is with my kids. Different people have different comfort levels, but we don't post pictures of our kids on the web, except where they are password protected, and we try to keep any identifying information out of general circulation online.

  • Give as good as you get....don't engage with the Internet as a passive consumer: embrace and nurture the spirit of expressive and contribution by participating actively yourself.
  • When I first got involved with Web 2.0, it was as a relatively compulsive blogger; the week that 43things launched, I must have spent 4 hours a day on the site. But now it's a classic case of physician, heal thyself: we're so busy creating user-driven web sites that I rarely get to noodle around on my favorite sites, posting my own stuff. In fact, I realized a couple of months ago that I was in withdrawal, and recommitted to blogging more often. Since I started blogging regularly again I've had a resurgence of passion for the social web; the feedback I get on posts like "5 ways" reminds me that our work is part of a larger community.

  • Fuse the power of money and technology....Taking our financial transactions, shopping and giving online is an opportunity to transform our dysfunctional experiences on those fronts into more meaningful and effective intervention.
  • This year we helped launch happyfrog, an online community that helps people in Vancouver find businesses and organizations that support a sustainable lifestyle. Working on happyfrog has had a big impact in bringing our financial resources in line with our values, because now I go to happyfrog when I'm looking for a shop or service, rather than just going to the yellow pages. I'm afraid that shopping is definitely among my vices, but I've shifted away from browsing Amazon and Target and towards surfing eBay, craigslist, and lately, Etsy. I remember hearing a waste reduction expert say that we should try to reduce, reuse, repair and recycle (in that order); the inverse of that is that when acquiring we should try to make do, modify, buy used, or buy locally/sustainably. The Internet is an amazing resource for helping us make do or modify (I constantly go online for advice on how to get handy or get crafty with something that's broken, ugly or outdated) and it's an amazing resource for buying used (craigslist/ebay) or locally/sustainably (happyfrog/Etsy).

    Photo by Kris Krug of Vancouver, licensed via Creative Commons (Attribution-NonCommercial_ShareAlike)

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