When Prime Minister Harper last prorogued Parliament in December 2009, many Canadians went online to express their displeasure. They created Facebook Groups and Fan Pages where most participants could click their mouse once to join the community. Some organized themselves into a national day of protest.
The media covered rallies which took place in cities across the country. Toronto had the largest turnout estimated by police to be 7,000. Roughly 4,000 in Ottawa took a pass on the first day of the Canal skating season. Two thousand showed up in Vancouver, 1,500 in Winnipeg and the list drops to the hundreds and tens for the remaining list of cities; all the way down to 35 in Duncan.
Media coverage of the anti-prorogation rallies centred around the issue, the number of people participating and in which cities, not how loud participants were or the number of times people yelled.
In all, an estimated 25,260 Canadians left their houses to protest. The rallies were a success by many standards (and, notably not in others) despite the roughly 25,000 participants representing only 15% of the 164,000 Facebook fans in the largest of the related Facebook communities. It was a movement, not a trend.
THE LEXICON OF DIGITAL ACTIVISM
Activism has become more digitized since those rallies. With that has come a new lexicon including friends, fans, followers, likes, trends and impressions. The terms are largely misunderstood and misrepresented in general conversations and often in the media. Even many participants are unclear on their meaning. And, because they are often used as measures of success, there is a growing number of examples of how the figures are taken out of context and ultimately blown out of proportion.
I took that to be the case this past weekend when a piece by Postmedia reporter Teresa Smith could be easily misunderstood to mean a significant population of Canada participated in the “Denounce Harper” online rally. She had picked up on the fact that Twitter was reporting the #DenounceHarper hashtag was “trending” in Canada — trending meaning there were enough tweets with a common term to register as a popular theme in Canadian conversations over the social media service.
So, I did some research and wrote a piece for my blog in which I provided context for the numbers.
I used some incredible tools produced by Marketwire/Sysomos which allow me to capture and analyze online traffic. Among other things, the tools make it possible to extrapolate common themes, demographics, geographics, break down online communications into types (original content, rebroadcasted content and conversation) and determine unique sources.
The upshot is I was able to identify fewer people participated in the online rally nationally (5,125) than turned up at the Toronto anti-prorogation rally.
Don’t get me wrong; getting a Canadian political movement to trend on Twitter is notable. The #DenounceHarper participants were able to get their concerns noticed by others online and were effective enough to get national media attention which furthered their efforts. Though, it’s plausible it was news (if only in part) because they conducted their coordinated rally on Canada’s birthday — a day when most people in Canada were either offline or were online just long enough to issue “shout outs” to their country and friends, and boast about the activities in which they were participating.
JOIN THE CONVERSATION
My post stirred up some interesting conversation and criticism online (thank you to all who participated). Some felt the numbers and my commentary minimized the movement. One tweeter compared my analysis to analysis I’d done during the federal election, suggesting yesterday’s post declared #DenounceHarper is not a hot-button issue. I never stated nor insinuated that. #DenounceHarper is decidedly a hot-button issue. My post sought to contextualize a Twitter trend, something coalition chatter during the election was not. Indeed, in both cases, the issues occurred within a digitally-engaged epicentre. My research shows this has almost exclusively been the case on matters of Canadian politics and public affairs.
In the Twitter conversation I was held to task for suggesting despite an estimated 14.6 million impressions, [Canada Day probably meant] most online Canadians didn’t notice or care for the rally.
Impressions. It’s a stat I and many others use in analysis of digital conversations. And it’s gloriously misunderstood by many. Impressions are opportunities to see. It’s a measure of how many times a particular piece of digital content may be seen by others. In the newspaper world, impressions are usually measured by sales. If you sell a million papers, you can argue a million people will see an article or ad. That doesn’t mean people will actually see or notice the content, read it, understand it or (more importantly) act on it. As a colleague of mine says, it’s a wet finger.
Digital activism is still in its infancy – particularly in Canada. Those who coordinate and engage in digital activism are still figuring out ways in which they can creatively and effectively get their issues on the national agenda, perhaps resulting in change. Political insiders who watch for dissent are still figuring out how to identify and understand the ways through which people are gathering and what the data really mean. For both camps and the journalists assigned to report on them, the move from the lawns of government buildings to living rooms and coffee shops presents opportunities and challenges — not the least of which is understanding what the numbers really mean.
Photo uploaded to Flickr by Make Poverty History Canada.