January 28th, 2008
In the networked web era, influentials may not be people with a particularly connected temperament or Rolodex, or people who control and influence monopoly distribution channels (e.g. newspapers), but rather people who influence the network by leveraging the most powerful force on the web — the link. People like bloggers, top Diggers, del.icio.us power users, Facebook users who share lots of links, MySpace users who embed videos, Twitter users who post lots of URLs, or any social network user with links to lots of friends.
This idea jives with a provocative article in Fast Company about a new disruptive Duncan Watts theory. After last year debunking the “wisdom of the crowds” using the theory of cumulative advantage, Watts is back, this time debunking the idea that there is a class of “influentials” who is more likely than others to spread ideas, trends, product endorsements, or anything else that can be spread virally. The existence of unique classes of influencers was the premise behind Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. But Watts, a Columbia professor doing work for Yahoo Research, says it’s all bunk.
The more Watts examined the theory of Influentials, the less sense it made to him. The problem, he explains over lunch in a Midtown restaurant, is that it’s incredibly vague. None of its proponents ever clearly explain how an Influential actually influences.
“It sort of sounds cool,” Watts says, tucking into his salad. “But it’s wonderfully persuasive only for as long as you don’t think about it.” For example, in The Influentials, Keller and Berry argue that trendsetters draw their social power from being active in their communities. Their peers naturally turn to them for advice. Need to buy a new car or navigate city hall? Everyone knows whom to trust. Gladwell, for his part, argues that trends spread like diseases; Influentials are the vectors who amplify and propagate the infection.
Fair enough, as a top-down view. But it’s murky, and for Watts, this is a critical flaw, because precision matters when you’re trying to explain highly social epidemics. Merely arguing that influence spreads like a disease isn’t enough, because, he says, diseases spread in very different ways. Some require multiple exposures; some don’t. Some reward “superspreaders,” and some don’t. (SARS broke out in Hong Kong not because the first victim was a superspreader but because a doctor mistakenly hooked him up to an aspirator–ventilating SARS-infected breath into the hospital air.)
This got me thinking about the dynamics of influence on the web, where in the age of Google PageRank, inline linking, and social applications, the link is the principal driver of “network efforts” and influence.
The reason Google’s search results often contain more blogs than traditional media content is that blogs were the first to harness the power of the link. Blogs linked to other blogs, while traditional media brands remained disconnected silos. Savvy web users — many college age or early 20s — pooled their links on Digg and developed the power to drive server-crashing volumes of traffic, forcing traditional media sites, who still lack such influence, to plaster themselves with Digg This buttons.
Embedding YouTube videos is a form of linking that allowed MySpace users and bloggers to drive the online video revolution. NYTimes.com users leverage the power of links in emailed articles to create a list of most emailed articles whose influence arguably rivals the NYTimes.com homepage.
One reason the emergent Twitter network is becoming so powerful is the widespread sharing of links. Twitter users are not influential because they have influential personalities, but because they are early tech adopters who are excel at figuring out how to use new web technologies to influence and create link-driven networks.
You can explain the power of social networks and the “social graphs” in terms of links — every Facebook profile has links to other Facebook profiles. Same with MySpace. And LINKEDin — get it?
Journalists and PR professionals, the influence brokers of traditional media, have lost a huge degree of influence on the web in large part because they don’t link to anything. While traditional media brands are still powerful channels on the web, they are losing influence everyday to the link-driven web network — journalists and PR professionals can no longer depend on controlling these former monopoly channels to exert influence online.
Whenever I give talks to traditional publishers who have been afraid to link to other sites because it will “send people away” instead of keeping them trapped in the publisher’s own content, my now standard response is to say that there’s a site that does nothing but link to other sites — all it does is send people away. And yet remarkably, people keep coming back. So much so, that this strategy has translated into $10 billion+ in advertising revenue. (Yes, Google of course.)
Anyone can become influential on the web simply by setting up a blog or an account on a social network or social bookmarking site and linking to people and content that interests them. Anyone who is influential offline and wants to retain that influence online needs to start linking — and to leverage those links in a large network.
Influence on the web is all about connectivity — the larger the network, the more powerful the links.