ImageMalcolm Gladwell by the Business Makers
“Influencer theory” as it is discussed today on the social web is a pop myth. The various schools of thought lack the substantive analytical scientific study and proof to be considered legitimate or factual. Yet they are used by tens of thousands of marketers to strategically position themselves, their companies or clients online.
Auburn Professor Robert French said in a comment on Friday’s round up of these theories on SmartBrief and pictured below, “Frankly, all of the efforts in social media that I have seen aimed at defining influence and influencers are tools that seek to (a) drive sales of a company/interest, (b) try to elevate a company/interest into some form of ‘thought leader’ or (c) pseudo-research disguised as marketing promotion — maybe even (d) sell a book… You can’t build a theory on anecdotal evidence.”
State of Influence Theory Infographic by Jess3, based on discussions of influence on Welcome to the Fifth Estate.
When exploring the infographic in depth notice the alignment of top-down versus bottom-up influence concepts, as well as the basic offsetting of these two theory families, with Gladwell and Watts taking opposite sides. The Gladwellian top-down theories include One Percenters, Trust Agents, leaderboards, and to some extent Free Agents (to be fair, Kanter and Fine’s theory sits within their larger theory of networks). The Watts bottom-up family of theories include the Magic Middle and Groundswell.
Indeed, when you look at the two popular schools of thought, the worse for the wear is the more popular top-down school, first propagated by Malcolm Gladwell. This school holds that there are “uberinfluencers,” a few types of people that can move entire networks and organizations toward action. Unfortunately, as time has moved along (from left to right), these theories have become less and less data centric, and as French says, built on conjecture.
Every top-down single theory is positioned within a marketing book with the exception of leaderboard technologies, which are selling their services. In essence, these ideas are increasingly popularized by bloggers and companies who have directly benefited from their school of influence becoming popular. In the case of the most popular theory – Trust Agents – we see a reinvention of the one percenter theory with a healthy dose of Edelman’s Peer Trust study in it.
The idea of an uberinfluencer is reminiscent of the romantic era of cigarette advertising, when the Leo Burnett Agency creation the Marlboro Man touched off an icon of male sex appeal. Unfortunately, he was more likely alone in the desert dying from lung cancer.
Similarly, the uberinfluencer theory is very popular, and dramatacizes the impact of one person in the midst. America loves the idea of a strong man/woman leading the pack. But as time has shown, these theories do not apply universally to contagious events online and in real life. It was quite amazing to see Malcolm Gladwell’s proclamation that the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted last fall, only to have his words thrown in his face three months later with the Middle East uprisings.
There are some elements of truth to the top-down theories. Content creators or voices are important, and some become important due to their ability to generate peer trust (originally depicted as Connectors in Gladwell’s book), both of which can help set off word-of-moth events. When, where and how has become less and less specific as these theories have evolved.
The Contrarian Bottom-Up School
Image: Duncan Watts by the SESConferenceSeries
The bottom-up group, started by Watts in 2003 in direct response to Gladwell’s theories, has a different view, believing in a more networked effect to contagious events. Influence lies in smaller groups, more individuals and ideas/movements spread through weak ties. As an idea becomes popular in small groups and spreads, content creators and conversationalists notice it, and like their friends, help spread it across their extended relationships. This is the networked effect of influence.
All three of the bottom-up theories have the same weak point, that they are introduced within marketing books and, in the case of Sifry, a technology service measuring and selling blog influence. However, all three used analysis of data they collected to form their theories. At the same time, they have not had their results verified or replicated by third parties.
Watts, however, did a great deal of data analysis after his book came out while he was with Yahoo. He sparked an epic criticism of Gladwell in Fast Company, “Is the Tipping Point Toast,” and continued to revalidate his theories:
“A rare bunch of cool people just don’t have that power. And when you test the way marketers say the world works, it falls apart. There’s no there there.” And then, “‘All they’ll ever say,'” Watts insists, is that a) there are people who are more influential than others, and b) they are disproportionately important in getting a trend going.”
Well said, and true, at least in this marketer’s experience. The Magic Middle of all the theories has had the most weight with blog contagions, but as Watts so well makes clear in his work, contagious events are very, very unpredictable, and who will start them is an unreliable guess at best. There is more to it than simply marketing. There must be a need, and a societal readiness.
Back to the Fast Company article: “If society is ready to embrace a trend, almost anyone can start one–and if it isn’t, then almost no one can,” Watts concludes.
The less popular, but much more data centric bottom-up theorists hold that social network influence is not the domain of reach. They go further to show the strength of relationships matter more, that relationships and roles (a la Li and Bernoff’s Technographic profile) can change by the time or situation, and that more contagious events start below the uberinfluencer level, then rise up as events unfold.
As we can see, none of theories have nailed how ideas spread through communities. Only Watts’s work has yet to have a major hole punched in it, other than to say it is frustratingly murky and undefined. It seems that influence has yet to be defined in the social web era, much less in the 100 years of prior sociological study.
What is clear is that influence is perceived as online power. As long as other people are willing to pay to promote their ideas, products and services, influence theory will continue to evolve (or devolve, depending on theorist). But for now, despite evolutions and wrinkles, it still appears to be a battle between Gladwellian uberinfluencers and Wattsian groundswells.
As to the myth of the uberinfluencer, it has as much likelihood of producing a contagious event as Barack Obama’s odds of resolving the debt crisis without the help of U.S. Senators and Congressmen in both parties. Yet, as long as we live in a time where popularity and attention are valued, this myth will remain strong. Welcome to pop culture.
What do you think of the State of Influencer Theory on the web?