I’ve written a bit about influence online and it’s an area that really fascinates me. But when social media service Klout currently have Justin Bieber at the top of their top 20 list for influence, you have to wonder if this is pretty spot on, or if it actually means that influence is dead? I’m inclined to think, unfortunately, that influence is dead. That’s not to say that I don’t recognise the huge popularity that Bieber has online, but can you really classify him as more influential than Barack Obama? They shouldn’t really even be in the same list.
The first problem is how you define influence. Is it the power to make a ruling over one of the most powerful countries in the world (Obama) or the ability to encourage thousands of retweets of one your random thoughts (Bieber). If influence is to mean anything as social media progresses, then we need to seriously redefine the meaning. The problem doesn’t lie with Klout, who have developed one of the most sophisticated systems for determining influence, but rather in how we interpret influence and what it means today. The other huge shift in how we understand influence is the fluidity with which one can gain, or lose it. This is where you need a system or understanding that can take into account the wider context. When there was controversy between Stephen Fry and the man who supposedly drove him to quit Twitter, the man on the other end could have tweeted anything and journalists would have listened. One day earlier his tweets would only be noticed by his immediate followers, and one week later he was old news. Influence has never been attained so quicky, but is it really the same when it’s so fleeting?
The reality is that in 10 years Barack Obama will still be more influential than Bieber, but that’s now how Twitter or Facebook currently tells it. And that’s something that we haven’t been able to determine yet – when you can shoot up in popularity so quickly through social media and build up huge followings what happens years later when you’re no longer flavour of the month? Do the numbers still count and people still listen, or by that point will we have filtered who we follow and the influence will be gone? This is something that the current tools and services aren’t able to tell us and indeed is completely unknown as we only have a few years data and experiences to go with.
I have no doubt that influence as we currently know it means very little anymore. Being popular in the mainstream like Justin Bieber may get you the numbers online but whether it actually gets you influence, I’m not sure. I’m not convinced that Justin Bieber would be able to induce a real action from his followers, that the likes of Lance Armstrong could do when he asks you to join him on a bike ride on Twitter. There’s influence in numbers and influence in actions and these are two very different things that sets them apart completely. There isn’t going to be an easy number for advertisers for example that are looking to reach the ‘influencer’ in their area. In reality it changes daily, even hourly.
Set the bar higher
We’ve seen time and time again that established concepts including fame, popularity and influence don’t necessarily cross over online. Maybe we should stop looking for the traditional concept of influnece, admit that it doesn’t work anymore and look for alternative measures? This means that we need to look beyond the numbers and for something more, something that truly takes into account all that we can see, track and follow through social media. It’s not about lists and numbers, it’s about actions. And popularity does not mean influence, at least not anymore.