Counting in Context

Numbers matter. People tend to believe them when they see them. While that’s great, it can also be a problem. When you count things, you have to be aware of the context in which you’re counting. When reporting on participants in an online campaign, there is often an expectation that it happen at the scale of the Internet. In other words, a local campaign online should reach millions, because it can. Of course, sharing cat videos is different than sharing news of a community event. Understanding this difference is key. Describe the context in which people get online, why they would gravitate to this particular campaign, and what kind of actions can be reasonably expected as a result of the campaign.

Citizen Leaders

All participation is not equal. Liking something online is different than commenting on something. And commenting on something is different than creating and sharing something. Likewise attending a meeting is different than attending a block party or writing your representative. It’s important to understand not just what platforms people are using to participate, but the quality of interactions taking place in those platforms. Depending on your landmarks, discussion may be more valuable than transactions. Make sure this is clear at the outset.

Communication is complicated. In any given conversation, there might be humor, sarcasm, hostility, love. Understanding a range of responses that result from engaging in public process is key. You can gain deeper insight by looking closely at individual contributions or by talking to people and asking them about their motivations. Remember, every story you get from someone is part of the overall story you need to tell about your project.

Things to Keep in Mind

  • Identify things that are countable.It is equally important to understand that the same number can mean vastly different things in different contexts.
  • Discussion is more valuable than statements. Replies and comments can say more than lone posts. Look for sentiment, emotion, and counter narratives.
  • Recognize barriers to participation and use that to define the value of action.
  • Meaningful action is about relationships not transactions.
  • Put effort into marketing and spreading your message. Just because actions take place online does not mean that they occur at the “scale of the Internet.” In other words, you don’t have to reach 1 million people for online engagements to be effective.
  • Consider the motivation of the user/community. Recognize the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. Paying someone to participate may not be as meaningful as self motivated participation.