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Please Repeat: Influence is not Popularity

…and popularity is not influence.

In social media, influence has taken center stage. With the spotlight perfectly fixed on the “me” in social media, a large shadow is now cast over the “we” that defines the social web. As individuals begin to realize the possibilities and benefits that surface as a result of building connected social graphs, a very public exploration to find the balance between influence and popularity unfolds.

What’s clear in this chapter of the ever-evolving Web is that we can expect the unexpected. What isn’t clear however, is a pervasive definition of influence and how it is embodied in the avatars that populate social networks and the social objects that we introduce into the streams.

A good place to start is to recognize that influence is not in need of a new definition nor is it open to adaptive interpretation to suit the needs of those who confuse influence with favors, popularity, actions without effect.

Merriam-Webster defines influence as the act or power of producing an effect without apparent exertion of force or direct exercise of command.

Exploring alternative sources, influence is described as the capacity to have an effect on the character, development, or behavior of someone or something, or the effect itself.

I recently examined the definition of influence in a new report, “Influence is Bliss: The Gender Divide of Influence on Twitter.” While the study evaluated the distribution and level of influence by gender on Twitter, it opened with a review of what influence is and isn’t.

There’s a clear delineation between influence and popularity and it’s important to understand that in social networks, influence is not derived by the quantity of followers, friends, clicks, or “likes.” Nor is it discernible by the frequency of which one participates in their respective communities. While these serve as indicators of influence, they are not necessarily constant factors in its quantification.

Influence was thrust onto the stage recently as a result of Fast Company’s Influence Project, which for all intents and purposes, blurs the line between influence and popularity and it starts with with the tag line, “You’re more influential than you think.” The confusion between influence and popularity is only fortified by Fast Company’s explicit intent, “Searching for 2010’s most influential person online.”

The dilemma here is that this project is not rooted in measuring the effects of influence at all; it simply measures the clicks as a result of how well someone campaigns for votes. Participants, all 27,000 of them, are now operating under the assumption that clicks contribute to influence and influence then begets publicity and ultimately some semblance of fame.

Is this program a mockery of social media as  cast by some of the web’s most vocal pundits? No. However, to position it as a way of measuring individual influence is disappointing. With leadership comes responsibility and as such, we must continually earn a position of authority through our actions, ideas, and words. Doing so thoughtfully contributes to not only our social capital, but also our level of influence.

As an aspiring social scientist, I do find that as a cultural experiment, The Influence Project is fascinating and even fun to those involved.  To take the role of anthropologist and document the experience is something that I’m sure Fact Company’s Mark Borden is anxious to document and publish.

The experiment comes at a price however and one that requires a modest, but important webwide cleanup effort. At the heart of the matter is a simple, but powerful word and it needs to be taken back.

Wisdom of the Crowds

Social media is said to be defined by the wisdom of the crowds. As Andrew Keen emphasized in his book, “The Cult of the Amateur,” many of the most visible movements online wouldn’t represent the level of wisdom one might expect. As such, effects are measured by the sum of their parts. And unfortunately, one can never underestimate the power of the uninformed in large groups.

It’s trivial to spur a click, vote, like, or share/ReTweet. Over time, harmless requests transform into questionable acts of self-promotion and once switched, the transition is difficult to reverse. Social currency comes into play in all that we do online. It is the active investment of relevant content and insight combined with recognition, reciprocity, and reward that boosts trust and authority. Over time, our net worth is measured not by the size of our social graph, but our place within it.  As a result, social capital is visualized as influence. It is influence that shapes the agenda of social communities and the resulting activity and conversations that contribute to their resonance.

In social networks, influence aligns with an individual’s investment where authority becomes a measure of return. Services such as Klout, Edelmen’s TweetLevel, and PeerIndex, have devised complex human algorithms to calculate the level of prominence individuals have amassed in each network over time. These services, to some extent, establish a FICO score that calculates the credit of one’s social capital.

HP’s Social Computing Lab recently published a landmark study that examines the building blocks for making a tweet unmistakably influential. The team led by Dr. Bernardo Huberman, Daniel Romero, Wojciech Galuba and Sitaram Asur analyzed 22 million tweets. To put that number into perspective, 65 million Tweets fly each day, equating to just under 2 billion Tweets per month.

As a way of measuring influence and identifying particularly influential users, the HP team devised a new “IP Algorithm” to measure the influence level of users as well as surface Twitter’s most influential individuals. The calculations also accounted for “passivity,” the propensity for someone to view, ignore, or miss the content shared by others. Over the years, I’ve studied “connectivity,” the opposite of passivity, where attentiveness begins with our attention aperture. In order for social object to trigger the social effect it must represent something compelling and shareable in addition to a right time vs. real-time introduction.

The study found that a notable majority of Twitter users act as passive information consumers and in turn, rarely share or RT content to their respective social graphs.  The key discovery is that to become influential, individuals  must not only catch the attention of their followers when their attention aperture is open; they must also overcome passivity. This is also something that I explored with Dan Zarrella in “The Science of Retweets.” The same is true for Facebook and YouTube.

What’s most important, is that HP’s Social Computing Lab scientifically separates the concept of influence from popularity. The link between the size of the social graph and the propensity to cause effects is weak.

The study concludes, “This study shows that the correlation between popularity and influence is weaker than it might be expected. This is a reflection of the fact that for information to propagate in a network, individuals need to forward it to the other members, thus having to actively engage rather than passively read it and cease to act on it.”

During the limited period of data collection, the HP team found that of all the influencers discovered as a result of the research project, the following users rose to the top of “IP-influence,” @mashable, @jokoanwar, @google, @aplusk, @syfy, @smashingmag, @michellemalkin, @theonion, @rww, @breakingnews.

From Influence to Influencer

Over the years, I’ve explored the roles of influencers in social networks and as a result, I’ve refined the definition as simply the ability to cause measurable actions and outcomes. Intentional influence then assumes that certain actions are therefore definable and as a result, desired activity and results are now designed into strategies. The execution of these plans is then dependent on the reach and conviction of the influential voices to which they’re aligned.

In a world where we are measured by our social graph and our stature within it, influence, not ignorance, is bliss. Attention, engagement and affinity are earned privileges and as such, with influence comes great responsibility.

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297 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “Please Repeat: Influence is not Popularity”

  1. Kyle Lacy says:

    With influence comes responsibility…good post (as always).

  2. Becky Johns says:

    This is fantastic, Brian. As you've pointed out, the social web has created sort of an influence-based economy and all the exchanges of information and shares and likes and conversions are being measured by what (and who) is making people take these actions. I love your definition: the ability to cause measurable actions and outcomes.

    Confusing popularity and influence is easy to do on the surface. Influential people often become popular. But it doesn't mean the same thing the other way around. It's important you've explained here why that is.

    Wonderful food for thought.

  3. John MacDaniel says:

    Very interesting and thought provoking piece. As a Consumer Affairs specialist I approach the process of identifying influence from two angles. Although I agree that popularity is not influence I do still look at followers and on topic posts but more importantly I look for what I refer to is the POP Effect (Power of the Post or Potential of the Post). A so called small fish can become a big fish very quickly and I am looking to see if the particular post or topic has touched on either a point of vulnerability or a sweet spot and in addition is well developed. If the quality is there and the topic is one that I feel could gain momentum then the author or creator becomes of interest to me. So I am looking at not only the author or creator but the content and then I phrase your definition of influence in a question form, does it have the ability to cause measurable actions and outcomes? So perhaps influence is not the right label but if I identify something as having the POP Effect it will take precedent over what some may consider the traditional influencer. Thanks again for the insights Brian.

  4. Tom Ohle says:

    Brian, absolutely agree with everything… and, well, since my emails are probably getting lost in the ether, let me point you to Obviously it's going to be very difficult to create a definitive measurement of influence, but I'd like to think we're on to something with our model. Take objective metrics and add a market system to help define how you can drive people to action.

    As with the Fast Company bit, it really seems like influence is supposed to be, simply, a measure of reach. Influence is much more related to trust and reputation than reach. If I can convince five people to go do something, and they do that every time I tell them to do something… I have a lot more influence with that group than someone who has ten million followers and can get 2000 of them to do something. They just have more reach.

  5. BrettGreene says:

    I couldn't agree more Brian. I wrote a post concurring with you when I first found out about the mislabed “Influencer Project”.


  6. I think empowering actionable consumers vs. connected consumers with huge follower/friend counts is very different. Not all people are “voices” in social media even if they have a ton of connections. How many of us watch and read and never do anything after the thought has passed? If the goal is to gain views or clicks than connected is the way to go. If the goal is action, then find the people who motivate many smaller groups of people. The return on the effort will be larger.

    Think about high school…the star quarterback was popular at that moment but where is he today? The kid in the back of the room, who wasn't regarded as popular, is now the person making waves and creating change long term. The quarterback had a momentary audience, while he was cool…once he graduated, he was just a regular guy again.

    The quiet guy was still building momentum based upon close knit relationships. Small waves of influence vs. a big splash.

    Director of Enterprise Engagement

  7. We need to keep repeating that influence is not popularity. The same that repect doesn't mean like.

  8. Brian Rice says:

    Excellent post, filled with insights that are sure to be quoted. My favorite “Attention, engagement and affinity are earned privileges and as such, with influence comes great responsibility.”

    Well done!

  9. 40deuce says:

    Great post Brian.
    People need to understand that there is a big difference between popularity and influence and reading this is a fantastic start.
    I've been meaning to write a post about influencers since the Fast Company “contest” started, but keep getting side tracked. You can be sure though that when I do I will be referencing this article for the great info. Thanks.


    Sheldon, community manager for Sysomos

  10. Jose Huitron says:

    There is a clear difference between popularity and influence. You mentioned the role of recriprocity which is indeed important to influencing others. We care about those who care about our actual interests and perspective making it vital that we skip beyond any element of self-promotion but rather focus on others. A true key to winning friends and influencing others is speaking in terms of other people's interests and becoming genuinely interested in who they are and what they have to say. Great post Brian! I particularly enjoyed your visual which places a clear importance on recognizing the role of an audience's attention aperture and the element of time. I believe this is why it is important to create content and keep the stream flowing in an effort to hit all moments when the attention aperture is at its widest point.

  11. Barbara says:

    Brian…as someone who has been studying the changing influence dynamics really closely for the past couple of years, I can't agree more with the confusion around influence and popularity. When we went looking for a technology partner that would provide the science or data behind what makes someone influential we had to look beyond many of the available tools since they really only got to the heart of popularity…shear numbers…and not the quality of the influence. What was missing was the credibility factor…understanding someone's reach as well as their resonance around a relevant issue is what's most valuable in understanding their influence. What's been fascinating for us here at Eastwick Communications is the shifting profile of what an influencer looks like today. Through our influence mapping methodology we've identified congressmen, customers, researchers, experts who blog as examples of influencers that were ignored at times…and now represent an opportunity for companies…at least companies who've figured out how to find those influentials and engage with them.

  12. Bill Cammack says:

    And vice versa. Popularity is not Influence.

    The town crier tells you the news, but he doesn't make any of the policies. He's not influential at all, even though a lot of people ACT because of what he tells them. He's merely the messenger.. A vehicle.

    I know people who are extremely popular and their names ring bells in social media circles and NOBODY would take their advice on ANYTHING because they don't consider them authorities in any field at all… They're just people whose names are known or who have amassed a lot of followers on SM sites.

  13. ed han says:

    Excellent stuff, Brian. And I have to say it's kind of refreshing that someone who's accomplished what you have already describes himself as an aspiring anything.

  14. azeemazhar says:

    Great post again. And completely agree with you–influence is an overused and abused term. Study after study and anecdote after anecdote has surely demonstrated that follower counts do not equal popularity do not equal influence. (The Million Follower Fallacy did that, Huberman's paper reinforces it with more granularity).

    And while influence is not popularity, it may also constrain our ability to get value out of the social interactions we are witness on the Internet. People are active for different reasons. Others because they want to be classically influential, some in order simply to share, others to demonstrate expertise. Constantly reinforcing the measure of influence focusses on one end of the marketing chain (the 'money end'). But what of those people with different motivations? Does @paulkedrosky or @gcluley share content in order to sell more products? Or do they do so as a means of managing an extended professional network, and reinforce the two-way idea flow?

    It is important to consider closely what we want to measure and how we are measuring it. Perhaps it isn't 'influence' after all.

  15. Great Article and spot on…Thanks for writing it! debra @momsofamerica

  16. lancetay says:

    I found that EmpireAvenue.Com has been a great way to connect and interact with new people. Influencing and being influenced. Watching all the graphs rise and fall has been much more exciting to me then just checking on my Klout score once a month.

    With all the different models out there for measuring ones influence, which would you base a standard on?

    For me, influence is best observed in my tight social network and peers of friends as it is I am sure for many others.

    Everyone.. has influence.. whether they know it or not.

  17. BbeS says:

    And popularity is not influence.

    Great post! So many people get this confused. Just because an individual is popular on social media doesn't mean they really have any influence, or should.

  18. BbeS says:

    And popularity is not influence.

    Great post! So many people get this confused. Just because an individual is popular on social media doesn't mean they really have any influence, or should.

  19. Scott Saxby says:

    The fast company competition certainly seems very spammy. It seems that the world of Social Media is dog eat dog with people scrambling to reach the top of the ladder and the rest of us just listening intently to those on top. I've decided to give influence reaching a miss and just be a valid participant that wants to engage and be engaged.

  20. influence and popularity are two interconnected idea that can't be separated. It takes a lot of discussions and debates on this matter. I can influence because i'm popular and i'm popular because i can influence.

  21. This report needs an editor if it’s going to be popular. It might make it more influential as well.

  22. Here’s a terrible line: (aside from the fact that investments shd be investment and regiment, regimen)

    It is the active investments of relevant content, insight, and a balanced regiment of recognition, reciprocity, and reward that boosts trust and authority.

  23. HLFH says:


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