Online Influence: The new currency?

In the lead up to the Social Media Lab Symposium & Workshop on Measuring Influence on Social Media this Fall at Dalhousie University, we will be exploring the evolution of the concept of online influence and authority. This is an area that our lab has explored in the past during the 2011 Canadian Federal elections (see “Measuring Influence on Twitter: Top 10 Influencers on #cdnpoli”). Over this summer we will be featuring a few new blog posts examining what it means to be influential in the age of social media, starting with this post: Online Influence: The new currency?

Is online “influence” set to become the currency of the future? Some would say influence in general has always been a currency, just ask any lobbyists working in the corridors of power in capitals across the globe. Historically,  influence and authority have rested in the hands of a selected few. But over the past few centuries, authority and influence have begun to be diffused more broadly across a wider swath of society. And the advent of social media has only accelerated this trend.

 The Evolution of Influence and Authority

 The term authority was first coined back in the Middle Ages.[1] Power quickly became an institutional creature, concentrated in the hands of a few – the intellectual elite, clergy, and aristocrats.[2] The average man wielded almost no societal power whatsoever with little to no opportunity to gain any – let alone the women or children. A man’s bloodline, easily quantified and unchangeable, finitely determined his ability to influence. For the most part, this remained the dominant power structure until the 18th century.

The Industrial Revolution became the catalyst that started the influence and power diffusion still underway today. As the middle class emerged, standards of living rose, the population exploded, and capitalism became the mainstream economic policy – in essence the “American Dream” was born.[3] The industrialists, not necessarily of noble descent, became bastions of wealth and influence. For the first time, it was possible for an average man through his own efforts, to become wealthy and powerful. As such, influence started to diffuse among the masses in an extraordinary manner. One’s bloodline no longer finitely determined their ability to hold a position of great influence. Through education and entrepreneurship, one could now become influential.

Social Media and the Influence Revolution

The Internet and social media are changing everything once again. We are in the midst of an Influence Revolution. A single well-placed tweet from an otherwise average person can now humble even giants and alter the lead on the evening news. Within minutes of Time’s most recent cover being released, “Are You Mom Enough”, a firestorm of outrage took over the Twitterverse and traditional media. The speed at which information is being dispersed today, and who is doing the dispersing, is rapidly changing our society. People no longer have to be aristocratic, nor well educated, or wealthy (not that it would hurt) to be influential. They just have to be well networked and ubiquitous on the multitude of social media sites. As Lee Rainee (Director – Pew Internet) and Barry Wellman, (Director – UofT Netlab) recently noted in their new book Networked: The New Social Operating System, to succeed in this new world “requires us to develop networking skills and strategies, work on maintaining ties, and balance multiple overlapping networks.” Those who can master all three can gain influence and will be well rewarded.

Measuring Online Influence

As more and more people live their lives online and connect to each other using social media, things that were once difficult to manipulate and control such as word of mouth –one of the more personal forms of influence – is no longer untraceable or immeasurable. It is now easier for marketers to find the everyday influencers, analyze every painstaking detail about them, and woo them with targeted incentives and “VIP” access. This ability to observe, track, and measure an individual’s online interactions and level of influence among their online networks are already beginning to change the business and social landscapes.

At this stage, the metrics for measuring online influence is still in its infancy. There are some major players such as Klout, PeerIndex, and Kred vying to convince the public that they are the standard for measuring online influence. However, the truth of the matter is that there is currently still no accepted standard for measuring online influence. If your tweets get retweeted often, does that make you influential? If a link you posted to Facebook gets a lot of “Like”, does that mean you are influential? Is this whole attempt to quantify online influence just a frivolous pursuit? What do you think? Leave us your comment below.

Stayed tuned for more on measuring online influence in a later blog post.

*Written by Ashley Greene and Philip Mai with contributions from Anatoliy Gruzd.