Influence versus everything else

Man with a heartFollowing up on a panel I was on during social media week, it’s time I followed up on some of my statements about influence and social media.  Brass Agency captured the thoughts of several of speakers at Social Media Week and produced a rather entertaining animated short film of those thoughts, as well as hosting their own discussion of the subject on their blog.  And following that animated film, Jo Jordan psychoanalyzed our views, while Scott Gould tried to define influence, and Su Butcher produced an interesting post on what makes an influential tweeter.  I’ve contributed in comments to some of these resources but I wanted to clarify my position here.

I’ll summarise my position as follows:

  1. Influence is a construct, not an outcome;
  2. Influence is not as important to social media users as reputation;
  3. Acceptance of influence is only partly measurable.

1. Influence as a construct

I have a problem with the whole concept of influence.  In the context of social media commentary, it’s actually a construct created by business as a means of predicting actions of consumers.  It comes from the advertising tradition and is consequently measured by sentiment (positive/negative), mentions (quantity), and brand awareness (product recall).  The trouble I have is that influence is largely artificial.  I’ll explore this further in Point 3 below, but the notion of an authority or celebrity having influence over consumers is, in my opinion, a misrepresentation of social imperatives for inclusion.  What is actually happening is not that the celebrity magically changes the mind of a consumer, simply through endorsement of a product or service, but that the consumer is prepared to adopt a product or service as a means of shaping their identity to emulate that of the celebrity.  The difference is subtle but important.  It is absolutely possible for a consumer to emulate the style of an authority or celebrity without necessarily sharing that celebrity’s opinion.

Now in terms of business, the difference is probably irrelevant.  If a consumer is adopting or endorsing a celebrity opinion, then the business objective at least in terms of brand message diffusion has been achieved.  But it’s a false construct.  It doesn’t mean people have been robbed of their free thinking, nor have they necessarily been convinced of an authority view.  It simply means that consumers are willing to appear to agree with authority/celebrity endorsement in order to maintain their standing within communities that value the views of that authority or celebrity.  It’s not really influence so much as fashion.  And just to make it clear, the difference between influence and fashion is that influence is a force for change, where fashion is a force for similarity.

2. Influence versus reputation

To me, what matters among social media users is reputation rather than influence.  While metrics fans are keen to demonstrate any particular social media user’s influence over other users, I’m increasingly convinced that users are far more interested in being respected than considered autocratic authorities.  The difference between social media and other media forms is the impact that shared communication can have over issue understanding, personal wellbeing and socio-political action.  While broadcast and print media and telecommunications are capable of improving access to information, it is social media that is generating a sense of shared experiences.  This is why Facebook and twitter have been instrumental in demonstrating shared perspectives in Iran, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, and other regions protesting against autocratic rule.  It’s not a matter of social media bringing about change; it’s more that social media can demonstrate to a frightened majority that a neighbour who will never say anything to your face, may feel comfortable about sharing a perspective online – particularly when that online space that is hosted in a far-away nation.

The more that individuals in social media develop authority, the more necessary it is for them to engage with others and to exhibit their openness to new perspectives.  If they resort to mere directives and opinion expression, they become broadcasters, reducing their trustworthiness and their merit as authorities.  Concomitantly their ‘influence’ suffers.   But it is damage to their reputation among social media communities that is the catalyst to that change in influence, not a reduction of influence that impacts their reputation.  That cause-and-effect difference is crucial: if a social media celebrity/authority fails to exhibit their very human, emotional response to the world and the people in it, then followers soon suspect manipulation and control of image.  This breaks down trust, and the loss of trust results in loss of authority.

Importantly, this is a major shift in what the marketing sector has traditionally considered ‘reputation’.  Just as influence is a business construct, reputation has been reduced in marketing practice to an idealised representation, rather than a true reflection of collective opinion.

3. Measuring acceptance of influence

Perhaps most importantly of all, what we see as evidence of ‘influence’ in social media – mentions, sentiment, etc – is not even close to what is really happening.  Besides the fact that users can choose to present a completely fictional representation of themselves online, thus repeating/endorsing perspectives that are not their own in practice, there is also the possibility that opinion can be changed (ie: genuine influence) without there being any evidence of it having occurred.  While business statisticians will argue that evidence of opinion change is registered in sales of products or services, even sales are not necessarily a direct result of opinion change.  One has to consider other possible factors – convenience, lack of available rival products, price, and so on.  And of course sales figures only work for tangible and intangible products, not for ideas and collaborative projects.

But not even ongoing conversations on a subject area are necessarily evidence of opinion change.  Social media encourages direct debate for those who have a confrontational bent.  Thus if a user extensively discusses an issue/product/brand/etc, this may have much more to do with the user’s argumentative personality than with their influence or authority.  Indeed there is ample evidence of discussions in a variety of social media of tenacious adherence to a perspective, and argumentation for that perspective, regardless of whether the user has authority, influence or indeed merit in their argument.  Yet metrics applied to social media will artificially weight those users who do engage with others frequently, or who do mention a brand/product/hashtag, simply because this is the only means of affordably calculating the construct of influence.

I do not mean, in this post, to directly criticize the attempts to quantify influence in social media being made by several organisations, using a variety of tools.  I am only offering this extended response to the question of social media influence because I think it’s important that we don’t make predictions about consumer behaviour on false assumptions.  I’m also decidedly uncomfortable with the notion of influence in its purest form (changing opinion) being enacted by an individual.  It’s something that does happen, but I would hope that as a society that is beginning to seek shared experiences through social media that opinion change is something that should be driven by consensus, not by autocratic directive.

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