Fast Company’s “Influence Project:” Maybe call it the “Popularity Contest” instead

Last night I was poking around the socnets before going to bed, and saw that Beth Kanter had posted a link to Fast Company’s “Influence Project.” I’m keenly interested in ways to measure influence as part of the research fellowship I have with the Center for Social Media at American University, so naturally I was intrigued and signed up. It took me a while to suss out what they’re actually doing. While they recognize that influence isn’t about numbers of followers or fans, this is how they measure:

The scale of your influence, and therefore the size of your photo, is based on two measures.

1. The number of people who directly click on your unique URL link. This is the primary measure of your influence, pure and simple.

2. You will receive partial “credit” for subsequent clicks generated by those who register as a result of your URL. In other words, anyone who comes to the site through your link and registers for their own account will be spreading your influence while they spread theirs. That way, you get some benefit from influencing people who are influential themselves. We will give a diminishing, fractional credit (1/2, ¼, 1/8 etc ) for clicks generated up to six degrees away from your original link.


What I find problematic: It’s still in many ways a popularity contest. Someone with a lot of time on their hands could launch a campaign to focus on generating as many clicks as possible, which would certainly skew the measurements of that person’s true influence– if they’re not actively campaigning, how much are people actually clicking on their links?

Plus there’s the problem of the power law in this case–early popular adopters are going to rise to the top faster than later adopters and benefit the most from the Amway-like pyramid scheme of click benefits.

There’s no good measurement for influence right now. Part of that’s because there’s a Pandora’s box of factors to consider. I may be influential in recommending information about social networks or dog behavior, but completely ineffectual at recommending solid information on the cultures of Lower Slobbovia. Which measure of influence is important? Do we take a mean number of some kind to represent my overall influence in the world? If we did, how much weight should my recommendations on Lower Slobbovia play?

I know people are desperate to have quantitative metrics when it comes to social media, especially when thinking about ROI. I don’t want to see us falling back on paradigms that we’re used to, though, because they’re now becoming outdated and useless. Here’s a smidge of how I address this in Share This!, from the section “Avoiding the Newest Numbers Trap” in Chapter 4:

Someday, maybe even while this book is being printed, my dream of having an application that shows me “interestingness” in the social network sphere will come true. Flickr has this for photographs: There is an algorithm based on “[w]here the click-throughs are coming from; who comments on it and when; who marks it as a favorite; its tags and many more things which are constantly changing.” The best part? Interestingness itself, then, is constantly changing, based on these shifting variables, so there’s a good chance of finding both something new and something surprising when one goes spelunking through Flickr’s massive collection of interesting photos.

I’m not going to lie to you: This great shift in authority isn’t the easiest part of social networking’s brave new world to navigate. The tools give us tremendous power to change the culture around us, but they’re new, and our behavior and impressions are still based on operating within a hyper-capitalist-focused, hierarchical mindset. We have a lot of work to do on freeing our minds before the rest of our bits will follow.

Surprisingly, though, the uncertainty of the future of social networking tools is also the good news: Things are still shaking out, and we’re in a position to determine whether the reordering of authority will benefit people who previously did not have the access or the means to make their voices heard. Armed with a fundamental understanding of what’s taking place (by, ahem, reading good books on the subject), you’re primed to make the most of change.

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  • Jim Gilliam

    It does sound like a good way to generate pageviews though.

    • deanna zandt

      heh, exactly.

  • Beth Kanter

    And a gimmick to get attention for their upcoming magazine issue on influence! Although the flash depictions of a little SNA of the people who clicked are interesting.

  • Rod Begbie

    There’s only one sensible way to deal with this… Go vote for my basset hound, Bacon!

    • deanna zandt

      @Rod: *snicker

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  • Bill Cammack

    Sup, D? :)

    I wrote about it also:

    The problem is that this isn’t influence at all. Besides the fact that you pointed out that early adopters benefit from the pyramid scheme, all it measures is how many people someone can trick into clicking on a link.

    On top of that, once someone gets to the site, they will advertise it to other people for their own reasons, not because the so-called “influencer” persuaded them that this was something they needed to get behind.

    It’s basically like when they have those “hottest chick on the web” and “hottest guy on the web” contests and an actually HAWT chick gets the most votes and some busted dude gets the most votes because he happens to be the most popular.

    Reach isn’t influence. The statistics on CPC advertising bear that out. You can show an advertisement to 1,000 people and it doesn’t net you a single penny if nobody clicks on the ad. You’re not influencing anyone to take any valuable action.. unless you count page hits to Fast Company because of people getting their followers to click on shortened URLs as “valuable”.

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