Today, I spoke to Alexandra Samuel, who is the Director of the Social + Interactive Media Centre at Emily Carr University of Art + Design, the co-founder of Social Signal, and a blogger for Oprah.com and the Harvard Business Review. In this interview, Alexandra talks about important technologies, the impact of the internet on our lives, research she’s uncovered while building online communities, and more.
Which technologies do you wish we still have and which can you not live without now?
There are only a couple of technologies I miss on a regular basis. One is “I want Sandy”, which was this awesome virtual personal assistant that could help with scheduling, task management and communications using natural language. You could send her an e-mail like “remind me to ask Sarah tomorrow about whether she wants to work on our new project”, and the next morning, you’d have an e-mail from Sandy reminding you to talk to Sarah. The other is the busy signal: even though I now find it shocking and irritating to get one (and it only happens once or twice a year), I can see that a world without busy signals is a world of constantly accumulating e-mail and voicemail inboxes.
As for which technologies I can’t live without: I can’t think of a single one. That said, there are so many technologies I wouldn’t choose to live without that I’ll just name the devices and applications I’d miss the most: WordPress, my iPhone, my MacBook Pro, Evernote, Google, Twitter, delicious, Skitch, single-app browsers (i.e Prism & Fluid), HootSuite, Plex (for our home media center) and of course, my label maker. I love, love, love all these tools, and am so constantly connected to and by them that I suspect I’m what other people call an Internet “addict”. But I have absolutely no doubt that I could live without any or all of them; at the end of the day it would be far easier for me to live a life without the Internet than a life without regular, intense face-to-face contact with the people I love and the people who challenge me. Remembering that we are able to live happily offline is essential to making conscious, deliberate choices about how we live online.
How has the internet changed how you interact with the important people in your life and build your professional identity?
The Internet hasn’t changed how I interact with most of the important people in my life, but it expanded the circle of who feels important. Most of my very closest friendships pre-date the Internet; interestingly, very few of my closest friends are enthusiastic social media users and two of my three best friends aren’t even on Facebook! But even without Facebook, I find a way to connect. For years I could count on the fact that on any given day, something I was wearing had been purchased in the company (and with the advice) of my BFF. It’s now been a decade since we lived in the same city, so I recently started sending her collections of my “should I buy this?” photos online so that I can get her advice!
Of course the exception to the rule is my husband: we have a very online marriage and the Internet is part of almost (I emphasize “almost”) every aspect of our relationship. The most obvious part is that we created a social media agency together, largely because we were coming home every night from our respective jobs and geeking out together about the then-emergent phenomena of blogs, RSS and online community; once people started asking for our professional advice it was a no-brainer to go into business together. But the Internet is also part of our parenting (not just by handing our kids an iPhone or iPad, but by doing family craft projects together like setting up our daughter’s Etsy store for her emoticon jewelry — http://2dots1symbol.com), part of our social life (we have a handful of dual-geek couples who share our love for Battlestar Galactica and all things Mac-related) and our one-to-one relationship (ask anyone who watches us tweet through our date nights, or just visit wetweet.ca).
Part of what I love about building my professional identity online is that these personal aspects of web use aren’t invisible — I get to be on the web as a whole person. So many of the problems in the world come from us trying to put part of our identity on a shelf from 9-5, but the strongest ideas and solutions come from our ability to connect with one another, to feel empathy, and to bring our full intelligence to any problem. While I’m certainly conscious of creating a “professional” identity through my online presences, particularly on Twitter and my blog, I think that a professional identity can also acknowledge that I’m a person with a family, friends, and plenty of neuroses. Of course I’m lucky because more and more of my professional identity is about helping people deal with the personal implications of life online, so being personal is part of being professional!
What research have you uncovered through your involvement with online communities?
I draw on a lot of different sources of research in my work in online communities, social media and most recently, social e-books. I did the initial research for the Internet chapter in Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, and that has influenced just about all of my work for the past 13 years, since (unlike Putnam) I’m actually quite optimistic about the Internet’s capacity to support the creation of social capital — namely, the community bonds and social trust that correlate with everything from personal happiness and public health to civic participation and economic performance. Barry Wellman and Caroline Haythornthwaite have really been leading the investigation into how social capital can be created online; a lot of my applied work at Social Signal, especially on projects like Tyze, has been an effort to put those aspirations for building social capital into action.
But the longer I’ve been online the more I see these struggles playing out at a very personal level, as people look for ways to make their time online more meaningful — for themselves and for their communities. So these days I’m looking at models for how to offer people those kinds of deeper experiences online; most recently I’ve been drawing on something called “The Reader to Leader Framework” by Jennifer Preece and Ben Shneiderman; I think their work offers a very pragmatic way to think about deepening people’s engagement online.
Do you feel like what search engines and social networks say about people will replace resumes?
Never. But that’s partly because I’m a ruthless copy editor, so the first thing I do with any résumé is to look for errors. Particularly when I’m hiring for a communications or public-facing role (which are the kind of hires that I’m usually involved in) I feel like I learn a lot from the level of accuracy and literacy that people bring to telling their own stories.
And of course that’s what search engines can never replace: that first-person, “here’s who I am” self-presentation. Any smart hire will now look at both. (You can see how we used social media in our Social Signal process by visiting http://bit.ly/socmedhire).
What three predictions do you have for the future of technology as it relates to personal branding?
I’m going to give you three contradictory predictions:
- “Social media” becomes synonymous with “social media marketing”, so we think only about our online lives in terms of how they project our message or brand out into the world. In our online lives, we define ourselves as “personal brands” and evaluate all our interactions through the lens of how they affect our individual brands. As we spend more and more of our lives online, we become so used to interacting with one another as brands that we stop relating to one another as human beings. In ten years, you go to a party and get introduced as “Meet Dan — he’s the great brand I told you about.”
- The social media masses rise up in mass resistance to their corporate overloads, and hack, deface or simply ignore the increasingly pervasive ads that litter the social mediascape. In the absence of advertising revenue, a lot of social media services go belly up, while other start charging significant fees for services, and make the revolting masses nostalgic for the days of you-give-us-your-data, we-give-you-your-Facebook.
- Marketing becomes part of social media the way it’s become part of lots of other forms of media, but it frames the conversation rather than pervades it. Social media users informally patrol the divide between genuine conversations among interested users, and staged conversations created by brands: they disregard or challenge companies who pretend to be people (for example, joining an online community and gradually building relationships with members before coming out with the pitch for the great new product they’ve created JUST for this niche) and people who pretend to be brands (for example, strategizing everything they say around building an image or followers rather than genuinely connected with other people based on their actual interests and beliefs). Social media services thrive on the the revenue they earn online (not just from marketing, but from delivering many different kinds of value to both businesses and consumers) while social media users thrive on conversations that continue to excite them, to give them opportunities for authentic expression, and that provide them safe places to connect with other actual human beings.
I know which of these predictions I hope to see come true. And it is absolutely within our power to choose which one will come to pass. But to get there, we need to see each other first and foremost as human beings — online and off.
Alexandra Samuel is the Director of the Social + Interactive Media Centre at Emily Carr University of Art + Design, the co-founder of Social Signal, and a blogger for Oprah.com and the Harvard Business Review. She writes about how social media is transforming our politics, our work and our personal lives. Her writing on technology issues has appeared in media outlets like the Toronto Star, CBC Radio, Business 2.0, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. Her writing on social media is informed by her experience as a web strategist and by her research background. As a principal with Social Signal, one of the world’s first social media agencies, she has shaped the online strategy for a wide range of online community projects, including Tyze, Change Everything and NetSquared. Visit her website at alexandrasamuel.com.