The evolution of social media power and influence

I was recently interviewed about Klout and social influence by Vinícius Cherobino of Galileu, a scientific magazine in Brazil. I thought his questions were especially good and wanted to share this content with you:

Galileu: How do you view the rankings and people’s influence score published on the Internet (such as Klout or Peer Index)?  What are the main consequences of this process?

Schaefer: There are two quite interesting implications of this development. First, many people are upset over the fact that they are being publicly rated, evaluated and compared. The debates on this topic can be quite emotional! On the other hand, this is a historically important development for marketers.  It’s certainly not a perfect system, but we are taking the first steps toward quantifying influence, or at least a small slice of it. Companies like Klout are in the silent movie stage. Let’s give them time to see how it works out.

We are currently seeing many companies creating their own influence rankings with their own methodology. How do you think this will evolve? Will it be a market with many players or only a few?

I think it will develop in several ways. Although in most industries there are frequently 2-3 strong competitors, on the Internet, typically just one company dominates a niche. We like to have companies compete for our money, but we don’t like it when they compete for our attention.  Humans have limited time and attention and usually we focus on one platform over time.  So I think a leading company will emerge. However, I think several niches could emerge too. The entry barriers are relatively low. So why wouldn’t we have applications rating teens, people in geographic regions, or single people?

After the evolution of influence scores, do you think it is possible to imagine every Internet user being judged by their position in the influence score (from possible employers to retail chains)?

There are limitless opportunities to use these scores. I heard of an interesting use where a company is looking at how connecting to people with high influence scores can affect the sentiment toward a company.  It’s mashing up two fields. Learning who true influencers are is an incredibly useful tool for many companies in almost any industry.

You mentioned the beginnings of a caste system in the Internet through the scores. How deep can this system can be? Do you think that a regular user will be able to defend him/herself of that?

This is a development that I think will drive some crazy, and unfortunate, behavior. People who have high influence scores will get lots of valuable gifts, even trips and vacations. People with low scores will get nothing. What do you think will happen? The people who get nothing will try any crazy scheme possible to get something or they will become resentful of those who are getting the gifts. I recommend that people stay centered and just be themselves. However, I don’t think many people will follow that advice!

Some critics claimed that this kind of “influence ranking” tends to foster even more inequality on the web (VIPs have everything, regular users have nothing). How do you see this kind of critique?

Life is unequal. So it’s no surprise that the web is unequal. But here is another way to look at it. Today, only the famous celebrities get free vacations, cars and endorsement deals. But now lots of normal people who just happen to be an expert and influential in something can experience a little celebrity too.  It’s a way for hard working people to get noticed and rewarded for their work too! Not everybody can be a movie star, but everybody can be influential in something and work hard to show it.

On the other hand, some defend the idea of democratization of influence. Not only politicians and actors, for instance, but regular users can fight for influence. What is your opinion?

I think this is definitely true. We are in the era of the citizen influencer. Everybody can have a voice. There are many common working people who can now be recognized for their authority. I think even I am an example of that.  I’m not a pro athlete or celebrity. But I do work hard on my blog {grow} and it is making a difference in people’s lives. So, yes, I am a common person but I have influence too.

Apparently, there is a gap between online influence and offline influence. Will the technology be   able to bridge this? Or do you think this will remain in separate arenas?

This is really the core of the online influence debate. As far as I can see into the future,  I think there will always be some disconnect between offline and online behavior.  However, with geo-location applications it is becoming more possible to tie online behaviors with say, going to a store or eating at a restaurant. This is being recorded and connected to conversations. Augmented reality will take us even further in that direction.  So there will be a bigger online-offline connection than people can imagine, I think. The technology is moving us toward that connection, not away from it.

How can the users’ influence be combined with other types of data mining from social network sites? Could this mean more privacy concerns?

For the most part, the scores are being determined through public information like tweets and status updates. So it is aggregating and sorting information you are volunteering any way. In that respect I don’t think there will be additional privacy concerns but I do think the profiling that will occur is going to startle people. But that is occurring everywhere. If I type an email in Google, moments later ads related to the subject of my email appear. That sort of profiling is at the heart of these advertising models and it will just get much more detailed and granular.

This could be another step of celebrity culture developing into the internet?

I think people make celebrities into celebrities, not the Internet! We are already in a celebrity culture. The Internet simply amplifies it.

What do you think?  How is power and influence being re-defined on the Internet?  Are you more influential online or offline?

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