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Alexandra Samuel in More than 140 Characters

After launching more than 30 online communities through the Social Signal Company with her partner, stand-up comic and cartoonist Rob Cottingham, Alexandra Samuel recently became the director of Emily Carr University's new Social + Interactive Media Centre.  With a PhD from Harvard in "Hactivism" (more on that later), two young tech-savvy kids,  3,273 Twitter followers, and a depth of knowledge about how to build and leverage open source software, Samuel blogs  for Oprah and the Harvard Business Review, teaches workshops and speaks at conferences throughout North America.  VO nabbed her between Tweets, blogs and panels for some face-to-face social engagement.

VO: Can you explain the history of your relationship with Social Media? 

Samuel: In 1996, when I decided to write my dissertation about the Internet, there was virtually no social science research on the this subject. Everybody at Harvard thought that I was completely nuts to want to write a dissertation about the Internet. After struggling for a couple of years and trying to get them to approve of my dissertation topic, I took a three year leave of absence and I ran a research project for a guy named Don Tapscott. He is the author of several books, including his most recent book titled, Wikinomics

He hired me to develop a research program that ultimately attracted about fifteen governments from around the world to look at the future of democracy in the age of the Internet. I did a lot of research on e-democracy and engagement on-line. For me, it was a chance to look at the range of ways I thought the Internet was going to change the relationship between citizens and government. 

I went back and finished my dissertation. I focused on Hactivism, (people who do political computer hacking). I looked at what motivates people to get involved in this form of on-line political engagement. 

When I finished my dissertation in 2004, early social web applications were just coming along. Blogging was pretty established and there were some sites that allowed people to contribute content. I had been researching ways that the Internet can engage people in a real-time, conversational way for eight years, so it was fascinating to see the technology catch up with the ideals of people involved in e-democracy. 

I launched Social Signal five years ago with my partner and husband Rob Cottingham. And then I was hired by Emily Carr in November to launch the new Interactive Social Media Centre. Virtually everyone at Emily Carr has an outside practice. However, for most faculty their outside practice is sculpture or painting. My practice is Social Media. 

VO: Do you think that these new forms of media have the ability to create more collaborative practices for organizations?

Samuel: I think it has the potential to catalyze change in a partly Darwinian way. The organizations who refuse to deal with it will lose relevance, compared to organizations who succeed in their ability to engage audiences. 

The people that I have the most time for in the social change and non-profit sector are people and organizations who are not only advocating for democratization and social justice...But they actually live those values.

Lots of organizations have moved away from hierarchical structures into more participatory models. What social media does is extend the ability of those organizations to have their members and employees more involved. Some organizations are going to be more able to make that shift than others.  

VO: If people are spending most of their time online, how can we leverage their attention towards positive change?

Samuel: I think the biggest challenge is that social media is rapidly being colonized by marketing and advertising. What is interesting, is that brands often create conversations by issues they raise in their ads. If your product is something like bottled water, nobody wants to talk about a bottle of water. However, your brand can create a conversation about something like water as a resource or water conservation. There is a tendency for brands to create meaningful conversations in order for their brand to have meaning. 

There is no real change that happens without conversation. Even if you are in the position to change policies...If that policy is changed without engaging people in the won't stick. Real changes happen through people discussing solutions and buying into those solutions, because they created them.

Social Media makes conversation a wider-reaching part of our lives. Some people perceive this media as analogous to broadcast media and imagine us staring at a screen. However, it is far more engaging and participatory. 

VO: What do you think about Vancouver politicians using Social Media?

Samuel: I think it's great. It's pretty funny too...I was looking at twitter during the closing ceremonies for the Olympics. And, when Gregor Robertson did his little flag thing, It was so funny reading all these tweets saying, "Wow, the mayor of Vancouver is super hot,"... "The mayor of Vancouver looks like he's 19." And then my favorite was, "Someone has to tell Barbie that Ken ran away and became mayor."

Poor Gregor. He's more than just a pretty face. 

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