Social Scoring and Peer Influence

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In today’s online world social scoring systems like the new Klout matter, unfortunately. For example, some jobs are tied to scores now.

Scoring systems encourage people to build wide networks to foster reach and create the perception of influence.

The highest scoring “influencers” like to think they deliver widespread impact with their followings. Every single book I’ve read by a blogger on influence claims this.

In actuality, that influence lies closer to home.

When real researchers parse influence we get a different story than the blogger myth propagated by social scoring. Instead, we see that true influence comes from those who are closest to us in our on and offline social networks, our peers.

As the old adage goes, “You are who you hang out with.”

How Ideas Spread through Our Peers

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Image by Greater Manchester Police

Peer pressure influences us more than a highly scoring influencer.

It’s when peers start discussing an idea en masse that they feel safe in discussion and, perhaps action, too. This is the science of networks.

What about the influencer, the big time blogger? They have become the 21st century’s equivalent of yet another somewhat credible (depending on who is reading) niche media outlet.

They may be a communication channel for ideas, and their take on those ideas can sway loyalist fans who serve as peers. But generally, their writings serve as a credibility point for readers, just like Consumer Reports, and nothing more.


Because relationships — true meaningful interactions beyond social platitudes (Like, love, you rock, etc.) — don’t scale after a certain point.

This recalls a debatable theory called Dunbar’s Number, which states that an individual can only sustain stable social relationships with a community of approximately 150 people.

GORE-TEX actually limited the size of its factories to 150 people or less based poor performance with larger workforces. The company adapted Robin Dunbar’s theory for its physical locations.

Applied, it’s not that a person can’t have more friends than 150, but the more relationships someone maintains they become increasingly superficial.

Choosing to be Influenced

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By selecting our friends, we’re also choosing to be influenced by their ideas, beliefs and behavior systems. Often their ideals are close to or similar to ours before we spend time together.

We, in essence, adapt their behaviors simply by the very normal sociological behavior of sharing the same “tribe.”

Knowing that if we spend enough time within a relatively small group of people in conversations (on and offline), we can actually steer our direction.

The concept of choosing to be influenced by peers is a concept I subscribe to today.

If I want to be a successful businessperson, I choose to spend time with other successful business people. Want to be a great writer? Then I spend time with other writers. Conversely, if I find a general group behavior to be negative, I choose not to participate.

What do you think? Can we predetermine who influences us?

35 Replies to “Social Scoring and Peer Influence”

  1. Great post, Geoff. My only clarification involves the significance of the Dunbar Number.

    It’s not a measure of how many people we can know or have relationships with — but it’s the maximum size of the network where everyone is mutually cognizant.

    I jokingly explain it this way: the Dunbar Number is the largest high school graduating class where everyone knows who has slept with everyone else. That perspective on Dunbar minimizes its citation in cases where you don’t need to know the inner machinations of people unrelated to your task.

    1. I think the GORE_TEX interview with Dunbar is highly revealing in that even he says no one really knows. Almost ever real academic researcher who studies influences admits this. Thanks for the comment, Ike!

  2. Geoff,

    Once again, you are right on the money with the post, the size of an audience does not directly correlate with ability to influence.

    I am surprised that your analysis does not include anything about trust (perceived or actual) and/or “likeability”. Using your final paragraph as an example: since you choose to spend time with that group of business people, they have some degree of likeability to you and you have some degree of trust in the information they are giving you. Without either of those two characteristics, the information you receive from that group would be much less likely to influence you in some way.

    1. Hahaha, well that’s important, but it’s a blog post and not a book, so I can’t possibly cover every aspect of influence in 500 words +/-. I do regularly blog about influence, so I hope you check out that category.
      The Likeability aspect that bloggers like to tout is actually something I associate with pop sales philosophy, which dates to Dale Carnegie’s Friends book form the 1920s. Perhaps the most scientific. is Robert Cialdini’s Psychology of Persuasion, in which he lists Likeability/attractiveness as one of the six factors that create influence for any aspect of life. CIaldini’s work forms the basis of Mark Schaefer’s ROI of Influence recommendations.

  3. This reminds me of a Harlan Ellison column that I read over the weekend. The habits of U.S. Presidents have been known to shape behavior, as Harlan discussed the case of a writer who got (at the time) a killer commendation for this book. The column argued that JFK’s fondness for James Bond novels were a key factor in that franchise’s success. I believe there are also anecdotes of books on Pres. Reagan’s desk/table/office/ shelves, etc. that became best sellers. This is the kind of power that marketers and business people seem to want to tap into. Well, that and the influence that Oprah’s book club used to wield.

    But that doesn’t seem to work for a lot of things. Whether or not Dunbar’s number really is 148.? or 150, after a certain point people who are less close to you – who have no power over you – don’t influence your attitudes or behavior. But I do like the idea of positive peer influence. The beneficial side of peer pressure, so to speak.

    But influencing large groups of people? It’s like trying to shape the direction of waves at sea.

    1. Right, and even a president won’t have direct impact on whether you should take job A or job B. You may idolize them, but it’s your friends that you ask. It’s really about your friends, ultimately.

      I think when we focus on smaller groups of people, as you say, we can make waves. Big groups, we lose to the ocean! Thanks for a great comment.

  4. It seems that finding one’s tribe can reinforce positive influences, but too much of that can lead to an echo chamber effect, or worse, the inability to experience new ideas/thoughts/behaviors that are just as valuable a skill in social interaction.

    1. I do think it’s important to move after a period of time. Inevitably, we do, but I agree stagnation is a big danger.

  5. It’s always a choice. I think as we grow older, we are better able to choose who or what influences us. Friends are always key influencers; family – sometimes. (It depends on your age when it comes to family.) Plus, there is always someone in our past who heavily influenced us in some way – I’m thinking of a teacher or coach. I don’t think as kids we realize the positive influences as much because we are being taught to avoid negative ones (drugs, etc.). As adults, we work hard to make the right choices and do the right thing, both in our personal and professional lives. It’s our choice to walk away from negativity or put up with it. So, yes, in my mind, we can predetermine who influences us, and we can definitely change who does/doesn’t as we continue down life’s path.

    1. These are tough choices. It can often mean the difference between stagnation and breaking through to another level. But it’s not easy. Peer pressure can be extremely tough to waver away from when it’s considered in full context.

  6. I think you nailed it with “Because relationships — true meaningful interactions beyond social platitudes (Like, love, you rock, etc.) — don’t scale after a certain point.”

  7. Great post, Geoff. Fantastic, even. I especially am fascinated by the idea that “influencers” can actually become so heavy in the online space that they become more like a broadcast signal, less as a person. I’m not sure if 150 is really the limit, but at some point, you’re throwing words out there to thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of people, and only a few will ever really get beyond that tweet or post of yours they share.

    Which is why depending on social media to save your life in whatever way is so dangerous. I think it’s why so many in this space struggle with anxiety and depression, to be honest. It’s a place where you get a lot of shares, but not a lot of connection. I am greatly lucky to have a lot of magnificent connections that go beyond 140 characters, and I would much rather keep it that way than end up with 100,000 followers on Twitter.

    1. The 150 number is highly debatable, but I agree with you in that the weak ties create a false sens of reality. And anxiety and depression could result from over relying on the weak ties and a lack of substantive interaction IRL with substantive relationships. Much food for thought here.

  8. You for sure are who you connect with. And you can only connect for real in so many places. It’s a contact sport and a game of sparse resources. You have to choose where you wish to be influential and be influenced. We can each only invest in so many spots.

    It only makes sense to be “mutually cognizant” ie there’s no point connecting with people who don’t have time for you. It’s a false connection.

    Influence, a bit like “following” can be one directional and two directional influence (reciprocal). Influencing up and down are different, I guess that’s my point.

    Influencing down scales. 1:Many. influencing up does not scale so well as to be effective it requires mutuality. And that’s where Dunbar kicks in.

    Upward influence operates in smaller numbers, yet we live in a world where ideas pass loosely from person to person. Downward of mass influence scales infinitely.

    Perhaps like Eskimos & snow, we need more words for influence.

    It’s clearly a topic that fascinates human beings, yet few have it nailed. Influencing up and influencing down are two different ideas that I’ve been thinking about.

    Your post brought it to words!

    1. Well, you also have to consider if it is a good investment. Specifically, are the people around you going in the right direction, or are you spinning in circles. If you want to be a CEO… I would even argue it’s not that there are smaller numbers of CEOs, just a smaller population. I still think they have their 100-300 people they talk with somewhat regularly.

      I would also agree with you that there is no answer for influence yet, just a ton of conjecture.

  9. Well, this is interesting, 2 people that I *choose* to be influenced by are talking about Klout and influence this morning (the feed showed up for me today) and I have to agree. Who you choose to hang around with definitely has an effect on your thoughts and actions. I do believe that Klout has its place, not as “the standard” (not yet anyway), but as “a standard”.

    As measurement gets better and more automated, intelligent systems start looking at and measuring patterns the “Scores” will get better and start to have more meaning. I submit that once these scoring systems start to measure real influence and Societal/Cultural engagement, rather than commercial metrics, they will really take off.

    Bruce Sterling took a look at this in his ’98 novel, Distraction. Very interesting use of Reputation as Social Capital.

    1. I’m going to have to check out that book, my man. It’ll be interesting to see if an algorithm really can capture influence and engagement on that level.

  10. “Knowing that if we spend enough time within a relatively small group of people in conversations (on and offline), we can actually steer our direction” This was one of my favourite quotes in your piece. The keyword for me here is conversation. It is in conversations that you start building potential long lasting relationship which might lead you to become an influencer as well as influenced by other people in your community.

    1. Yes, thank you! I think it’s important to note they we already are influential. We are to those in our lives whether we choose to see that or not. It’s a big responsibility, even if we have small networks of a few.

  11. For me, social media is a network of networks. The selection-based model from the study you linked to determined how those networks form, based on interest, expertise, geo, gender and more. Any score that would by-pass this model falls short. It’s a bit like trying to put all the employees of 100 companies in 1 bucket, scoring them alltogether..which is absurd. Having said that you can ‘rank’ influence within each of the 100 companies for sure to get an idea of the relative influence power amongst its employees, taking into account that each company is made of smaller networks by functions/projects/etc –
    To me any model for influence ranking / scoring has to first account for the network-centricity of the social web first.

    1. There’s so much sub context that you cannot pick up off a social scoring system like Klout or Kred. Very true, very spot on comment!

  12. I think sometimes you can predetermine it and sometimes you simply cannot. For me, I am influenced based more on context than on a person as a whole. You talk about when talking about wanting to be a good writer and hanging out with other good writers. As a musician I am constantly being influenced on many levels by other musicians. But the type of influence they have on me is based mostly on the context of the situation or relationship. Not sure if that makes any sense. I am a musician after all and we tend to make little sense from time to time.

    1. It does make sense. And when you don’t pre-determine the influence and it happens, it’s usually a very pleasant surprise. Life is always in session, as they say. Thank you for adding this.

  13. Check out this recent research from Nielsen. Recommendations from people we know (friends and family) definitely have the most influence. But “someones like me” are second (slide 3)

    What’s interesting when you talk about “friends” influencing is that our definition of that term has changed along with social media. I see people interact everyday on Twitter who are not friends in the sense they hang out IRL, but they are online friends and therefore do influence each other. Still, they only influence where there is relevance. That’s where tools like Klout fail. They don’t take relevance into account.

    1. Yeah, it’s definitely a niche friendship or as Godin calls it a topical tribe. They are skin deep, and relevance is the issue. Danny Brown talks about relevance quite a bit!

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