People Keep Fighting Power with Social Media

Pink Frangipani Blossoms

The first chapter of Welcome to the Fifth Estate discusses social media empowered people that act independently of traditional media, government and corporate structures. Last Saturday night on WOR Radio’s The Business of Giving show I had the pleasure of discussing this tension with host Denver Frederick. From Syrian bloggers fighting the Assad regime to the anti-Komen Planned Parenthood social media fury in the United States, people continue to fight power structures with social media.

Average citizens feel a need to circumvent established media as well as traditional government and corporate structures with online tools. Their information needs are unfulfilled and voices are not being heard. So people activate themselves online to demand change and action, or to form new innovative ways of resolving their problems.

The Syrian Revolution

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The Uberinfluencer and Bottom-Up Networks

Malcolm Gladwell
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.”

The State of Influencer Theory

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

Duncan Watts delivering keynote address at SES New York
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.

Chasing Influence

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?

The State of Influencer Theory Infographic

The State of Influencer Theory

The above infographic — “The State of Influencer Theory” (download here) — was published today as part of a primer on influence theory that appeared in SmartBrief on Social Media. The post updates a section of Welcome to the Fifth Estate to include leaderboard theory, such as Klout and Empire Avenue.

Addressing some issues pointed out in “Infographics: Art or Porn,” this graphic is designed by Jess3 (thank you, Jesse and Leslie), the industry leader in online data visualization. The infographic fits on one screen view. Because the graphic depicts people and theories, it is designed as a fun, cartoonesque map that illustrates the evolution of theory, creating a pop art element to it. The downloadable graphic is licensed as Creative Commons (with attribution), is high resolution, and can be made into a poster or screen wallpaper.

The key for the data elements in the graphic can be found in the companion post and is listed below:

The Tipping Point (2000) by Malcolm Gladwell – Movements are caused by three types of influencers; connectors, mavens (subject matter experts) and salesmen. Examples: Old Spice Guy, Dell Listens.

Six Degrees/Weak Ties (2003) by Duncan Watts — Data analysis shows influencers rarely start contagious movements, instead average citizens provide the spark. Examples: Egyptian Revolution, Tumblr – Digg Events.

One Percenters (2006) Jackie Huba & Ben McConnell – It is the content creators amongst Internet communities that drive online conversations. Examples: Lady Gaga, Ford Vista.

The Magic Middle (2006) by David Sifry: The middle tier of content creators and voices break stories and discussing that trickle up into widespread contagious events. Examples: 2008 Obama Election, Motrin Moms.

The Groundswell (2008) by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff: Movements start within communities, and leaders rise up out of the community, and can have many roles including content creator, critic and collector. Examples: Haiti Earthquake Texting, Pepsi Refresh.

Trust Agents (2009) by Chris Brogan and Julien Smith – Influencers are people who build online trust and relationships whose communities look to them for advice and direction. Examples: Gary Vaynerchuk (WineLibrary.TV), Republican Party’s #FirePelosi Campaign.

Free Agents (2010) by Beth Kanter and Allison Fine – These trusted influencers are independent of traditional command and control organizations, and crash into the walls of storied cultures. Examples: @BPGlobalPR, Robert Scoble at Microsoft – Channel 8

Leaderboards (2010-11): Influence can be quantified by online actions taken by a person’s community, including retweets, mentions, comments and more. Examples: Klout, Empire Avenue.

Because the article is meant to serve as an objective primer on well-discussed theories, there’s little opinion about which theories work and don’t. You do see some alignment in the graphic of top down versus bottom up theories, as well as the basic offsetting of these two theory families, with Gladwell and Watts taking opposite sides. However, there is much to say from an opinion standpoint, and it will be said here next week. :)