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SCI Case Study: Seeking Better Metrics for Online Activists

For the fifth consecutive year, Junxion is proudly sponsoring Social Change Institute at Hollyhock on Cortes Island, British Columbia. This is one in a series of articles by Junxion profiling SCI 2014 participants.

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Measurement is an inescapable buzzword in today’s social change environment. For organizations whose mission is to create and build social movements, finding the right metrics to communicate their effectiveness to funders and other stakeholders can be a challenge. When it comes to online communities in particular, are there better ways to portray “indicators of success” beyond showing the number of page hits or Twitter followers?

The challenge of finding sound yet meaningful metrics is one that Christina Samala, founding Executive Director of 18MillionRising.org, grapples with regularly. 18MR is a U.S.-based Asian American Pacific Islander online organizing and civic engagement organization that leverages the power of technology and social media to build power and community. As a case study presenter at the upcoming Social Change Institute (June 11-15, 2014 at Hollyhock), Samala will be tapping a valuable network of fellow change leaders for input and advice on new ways for campaigning organizations to define success.

How do you measure a network?

Samala (who goes by her last name – a throwback to her days as a DJ and competitive athlete) is a Wharton Business School graduate with a background in brand and online strategy, as well as a burning intellect. “One of the things I’ve been curious about recently is how to measure not just the sheer size of online communities, but also their density,” she says. “We’re used to hearing that this petition got 50 million signatures, or that video was viewed two million times,” Samala continues, “and there’s something to be said for those measurements of social change – but how do we measure how much trust is there in a network? How fast can you move things?”

Rather than employing a traditional hierarchical approach that many online activist groups still maintain, Samala leads her team at 18MR using a “distributed organizing” model, a concept launched with great success in Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. She believes that smaller networks like 18MR, which operate more nimbly and with a high degree of trust, “can accomplish quite a lot. Having more numbers doesn’t necessarily mean more change,” she says.

To emphasize her point, Samala mentions 18MR’s recent hoax campaign that called out Gap Inc. for its failure to take responsibility for the safety and wellbeing of Bangladeshi factory workers. The campaign, which “managed to really piss off Gap,” was effectively produced by just three people – Samala along with 18MR’s campaign director and media director. But she also credits the other online organizations and groups in their network for their role. “We were able to launch the Gap Inc. campaign successfully because of our relationships,” she says, calling out Taz Ahmed, an18MR member/leader and social media powerhouse in her own right who works with Asian Americans Advancing Justice L.A.

“I want to challenge the digital social change community about what it means to be effective,” says Samala.

Looking Forward to SCI

Samala visited Hollyhock three years ago for Web of Change, but this will be her first time attending Social Change Institute. “When I moved to San Francisco, it was to be part of the area’s technology community, as well as its history of activism and the creative community,” she recalls, “and it seems like there’ll be a similar mix of folks who’ll be at SCI.”

Samala is looking forward to bringing the ideas and perspective of her co-workers with her to share, and to being intellectually challenged by this cohort. “I’m most looking forward to having big, ambitious and open conversations with people who are doing similar things – and some things that are very different – and am hoping discussions will come out of SCI around what social change looks like and how that is catapulted by work online,” Samala says.

She’s also looking forward to putting on her DJ hat at the evening parties, shifting her measurement lens to the number of people she can get on the dance floor. “I have a knack for starting dance parties,” she admits.

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