As usual, Beth Kanter, is having interesting thoughts here and here on her blog about measuring the effectiveness of social media. I think for me the biggest question is how to do justice to the need for activists to learn how well they’re doing and how to improve while also acknowledging the need to think and act in an evaluative way that fits the open, networked way that connected activism works. (Please note: I am specifically thinking here about how to get our hands around the effectiveness of social networks for creating social change.)
Of course, all evaluative work begins from the same question: what do we want to learn? Beth’s thinking has been from an organizational point of view, more specifically, what return are we getting organizationally from our investment in social media? In Momentum, I urged organizations to take any opportunity to talk to and learn from their constituents, clients, communities about their services, not to wait for the perfect controlled environment to do so. Now, I’d like to start to think about evaluating value of what is developed through the network that is created by using social media for a social cause.
So, I’ll make up a simple scenario here to play with, and hope you’ll play along with me:
A group of students at Drake University creates a cause on Facebook, Project Green Ribbon. The goal of the PGR is for students to wear green ribbons on their own campuses on April 15th to protest the high interest of student loans and pressure their colleges to increase their subsidies of tuition (really, only applicable to private institutions with substantial endowments, but, nonetheless, a tangible outcome.) So, Project Green Ribbon friends start friending other friends. Eventually 3,200 students across the country post the ribbon on their facebook pages and wear a green ribbon on April 15th. A few write letters to their school newspapers about the cause and two hold rallies on their campuses. So, how would one evaluate the efficacy of this effort?
At a very basic level, something happened, several thousand students self-organized around a cause they care about and raised the visibility of that issue on their campuses by wearing the ribbon, publishing letters and standing around while people spoke. But, since no university was moved to reconsider its tuition policies, it wasn’t a total success. So, maybe, in traditional evaluation terms it would be graded as a B, a nice start that could be improved next year.
But, it’s more than that because there is value in the creation of the network itself that is overlooked in traditional measurement terms. First, social networks are powered by the nodes, the key intersection points that power a network. In this case there were about 30 students who were passionate about this cause, invited triple the number of friends on average than other participants, and made sure the letter writing and rallies happened. The nodes need to be identified, and assessed to truly understand what happened to build this network. In addition, by identifying the nodes, a cause is set to build on their prowess and success next time, and also to engage these super activists in another cause.
Second, the network isn’t owned by the cause, and it may not be very active after April 15th, but the participants were tied to one another, tightly and loosely, for a time by a common interest. Participation is an important, human experience, and a good experience leads to more participation. So, the very nature of the network and its workings is critical to understand for this and other causes.
I recognize that some success of networked activities is serendipity; the timing of a cause, the time of year, other news events that makes the cause more urgent. Nonetheless, there is a lot to be learned by the nature of the network itself, how and why it worked or didn’t, that can’t be overlooked.
These are just the beginning of some thoughts I’ve been having on this topic. I need your help to continue to work on this. Please send ideas and any links to other sources of info on network effectiveness. Thanks!