The Influence of the Unpopular

Image by Khiera Falconari

Have you seen “The Grey?” What a dark movie!

Of course, if you’re a wildlife fan, the wolf pack scenes were fantastic. And how menacing was the wolf pack leader? I don’t think he’d be invited to the high school prom. Yet the alpha male is the most influential of all the wolves in the pack.

Point being, influence isn’t always determined by popularity. Sometimes influence finds itself in the opposite.

That applies to human influence, too.

Honest Signals

Alex Pentland conducted research embodied in the book Honest Signals with his students at MIT’s Media Lab in the late 2000s on social network influence. They used a sociometer to measure human reactions to ideas and concepts as they were vetted by larger social networks.

One of the most interesting findings was the important role individuals calling out the echo chamber. These people, while not uber popular or most liked, bark when the echo chamber reverberates bad ideas. The idea market then reacts and corrects itself.

When I think of our world, the example that comes to mind is Michael Arrington. Arrington was not the most well liked guy. He had a real penchant for shredding up people, particularly PR professionals (yes, glass house here) and marketers.

Still, until he sold Techcrunch to AOL, Michael Arrington had to be one of the most influential people in Silicon Valley. Not only did he cover the trends, he corrected them sometimes, and even redirected sector courses.

Arrington was more than a journalist. He was the human wolf pack leader.

I can think of other examples where people who aren’t popular suddenly become influential. Situations like wars, games, and public events cause individuals to suddenly rise to the moment. These zeitgeists appear out of nowhere.

And of course, there are those that die. How many artists and musicians become even more influential post mortem? Do you think Klout could measure that while they were breathing?

Sociological Motivations

Starry Night at the Grand Canyon
Image by Mike Behnken

When we can truly understand human nature in all of its tribal nature, we can measure influence. That includes understanding motivations (from the spiritual to the carnal) and what causes individuals, tribes and social networks to change direction.

Right now, current attempts at measuring influence seem like shooting a singular flashlight beam into the Grand Canyon. We’re just getting an appetizer of what drives influence.

Humans and communities are so much more complex than any algorithm based measurement can understand. It’s like trying to fathom the depth of the human heart with a Hallmark card.

Pentland argues many of our tools have yet to be designed for truthful impact we share between each other as human beings. He hoped in the future that they will evolve to better harness our idea markets and networked intelligence.

When you look at what’s available today, solutions like Klout are great at measuring popularity and attention, but they miss human tribal thinking.

In the end, we may be “Intelligent,” but we are still animals and have deep wiring that’s yet to be deciphered. Perhaps Klout can measure our DNA strains.

What do you think?


  • Amen to that, Geoff. Great tip to that research–thanks.

  • Influence is incredibly difficult to measure or manage. In many ways, it’s more art than science. I don’t knock Klout for what they are trying to do — it’s interesting, perhaps useful even, but it’s not influence measurement.  Those two issues are separate in my mind.

    Lady Gaga strikes me as someone that has translated popularity into influence.  She’s gone from wearing meat dresses to tweeting at politicians.  To that end, I think context plays a key role in influence.  Lady Gaga found a cause and she rallied her base to it.

    As for The Grey; very disturbing.  I was a  little pissed with the ending;  was looking for a survivor.  But it’s an interesting modern day take on a Jack London-esque story.  Among Call of the Wild and White Fang, he did a book of short stories, one of which was a man surviving against hungry wolves.  All these years later, I still have the book, going to look up the title tonight. 

    •  The Grey definitely was a dark commentary on life.  I thought it was sad in a lot of ways.  Jack London was the man, and I, too, grew up on his stories. Loved White Fang!

      Agreed on Gaga, she parlayed popularity into something more!

  • Several weeks ago I heard Debbie Gibson, of all people, on the Jay Leno show. She made a passing comment about social media, followers and influence in passing. It was how we view influence based on how many friends and followers we have versus what we actually accomplish.  

    Until that moment, I couldn’t put my finger on what was missing from how marketers measure influence. Not to say audience doesn’t matter, but what we accomplish in our lives is equally, if not more important. 

    It’s as if writing a book, getting a degree, being a doctor and saving lives has less value because our Klout scores are meager  and only matter to a select few.  

    I’ve been thinking about this for a while now, but until marketers find a way to balance the hunger to tap an audience and look at things like …oh, a resume, list of ideas, actual attributes… measuring influence will never matter or reach its potential.     

    Anyhow, good post and I have something to add to my “books to read” list.   

    •  This focus on the numbers drives me crazy!  It’s the ultimate red herring.  Whenever I hear about reach and audience I want to run away! FAST!!!!

  • I just finished watching The Grey too, what an amazing movie.  I spent some time in Alaska and it definitely brought back some memories.  As for influence, I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and what it really means in the whole marketing realm.  Will there ever be a relevant method of measuring it? I’m not so sure :)

    •  It really gets to how well we learn ourselves. I liken influence measurement to DNA analysis. We don’t know jack.  Thanks for the comment!!!

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