Jan 11

No One Man Should Have All That Klout

FT9 comments • 557 views

The social media bits of the Twittersphere I read have been very approving of an AdAge piece this week by Matthew Creamer. Creamer lays into the firm Klout, who peddle a metric of how influential someone is based on the Twitter activity surrounding them. In a press release issued at the end of the year, Klout announced that the most influential person on the web, the sole individual to receive their perfect score of 100 in influence terms, was…. Justin Bieber.

Cue a predictable storm. Bieber was more influential than Obama, than the Dalai Lama, than – well, anybody, obviously. Creamer’s piece is smart about Klout in general, about Twitter as a self-contained game system, about the foolishness of using Twitter followers as a baseline metric for anything, and about a lot of other things. But I found what he had to say about Bieber interesting. Bieber, he explains, isn’t influential, he’s just popular. Influence is the ability to drive action, and what can Justin B actually do?

It’s hard to imagine that Justin Bieber, with his 6.4 million followers, is driving much behavior other than getting people to talk about Justin Bieber, frenetically retweet him, and possibly buy a record. Is that influence?

Erm… hold on? This is the Justin Bieber who is a pop star, yes? So what action is he meant to be driving, exactly, beyond being talked about and selling records? He’s sold over two million of them in the US this year – you try doing that these days! If they’re all on Twitter that’s a roughly 1 in 3 conversion rate which sounds well worth a high score on anyone’s metric.

I’m not especially a Bieber fan, I’ve never heard his album. I’m just using this as an example of the main problem with influence: not that people are measuring it wrong, but that the word is so apallingly fuzzy that most of the problem in measuring it comes from a complete failure to define what it might mean. (This line of thinking won’t be novel to anyone who’s talked to FT’s Mark Sinker on the topic). Influence is not popularity, says Creamer. Quite right. But if it’s the “ability to get people to do stuff” then as we see Bieber has plenty of it and Obama – whose social media goal for 2010 was presumably “get people to vote for my party in November” – doesn’t have quite so much.

The problem with the “get people to do stuff” idea of influence is that people have very different spheres of influence, so inevitably you end up having to step outside your metric to make a judgement about what kind “do stuff” matters more. The piece posits marketing thought leader Seth Godin as an example of someone very influential who doesn’t use social media. It’s true that Godin’s ability to get other marketers to repeat his ideas seems on a similar scale as Bieber’s ability to get fans to act on his tweets: but if Bieber is just “popular”, why isn’t Godin?

Another expert quoted talks about influence in terms of authority and trust. Yet another talks about it in terms of “thought-provoking ideas”. Now, none of these are stupid or wrong things to be interested in, the problem comes if we start using the same word for all of them. If Klout is talking about popularity, and Creamer is talking about power, and someone else is talking about authority, and someone else is talking about thought leadership, then why are we using the word “influence” at all instead of the words “popularity”, “power”, “authority”, etc.?

I’ve found probably the most useful way of thinking about all this is to follow the lead of British writer Mark Earls and flip the idea on its head: instead of trying to study “influence” by looking at “influencers”, look at the behaviour of the “influenced” instead. Then instead of trying to fit numbers to abstract ideas like “authority” you can think in terms of copying, rejecting, sharing, displaying and be a lot more agnostic about the source of the activity.

In the case of Justin Bieber, this kind of thinking is helpfully in line with my own ideas about pop fandom, which is that a specific star has incredibly little control over their fans. The fan relationship is generally far less compliant and more critical than outsiders imagine. And the focus of fans often isn’t the fan-object, it’s the fandom itself, and the codes and ideas which evolve within it. From the Apple Scruffs to the Bieber hordes, fandom becomes self-organising and self-directed very rapidly, and quite outside the control of the group or person which is notionally its subject. Bieber fandom is interesting because social media allows him a much greater level of one-to-many communication than stars had with fans in the past, but I’d still guess he’s more the engine or battery of the Bieber fan community than any kind of driver. What other fans are doing is, I’d hypothesise, much more important than any top-down communication.

If you like, you could talk about this relationship in terms of “influence” too, but what would be the point, when each relationship of influence – Bieber, or Godin, or Obama – turns out to work on different lines to the other ones, and it’s more interesting to look at them individually rather than try and lump them together?


  1. 1
    koganbot on 7 Jan 2011 #

    If Klout is talking about popularity, and Creamer is talking about power, and someone else is talking about authority, and someone else is talking about thought leadership, then why are we using the word “influence” at all instead of the words “popularity”, “power”, “authority”, etc.?

    Because there’s a loose family resemblance between all those phenomena, and they interact with one another. Say that you want to talk about the impact of America on the world, or the impact of Bob Dylan on music, the word “impact” is necessarily vague, since the impact can take all sorts of forms (what we’re really asking, “If there hadn’t been Dylan, then what?”). As with “impact,” so with “influence.” The usefulness of those terms is exactly that the impact or influence takes many forms. Ditto, the concept “importance.” If you want to talk about the import/influence/impact of something, and you don’t entirely know what the import/influence/impact is, then of course you use a term that allows for many forms, rather than overspecifying.

    The problem here is claiming that we can then find a single measure that encompasses all of the various forms of influence, or impact, or importance, etc. I don’t see how we can do so without resorting to pseudoscience, making the bad assumption that if we’ve got numbers and correlations, then we’ve measured something and we’re being rigorous.

    Incidentally, this is what a lot of the fight about IQ is about, whether it makes sense to claim that IQ really measures intelligence, or if it could ever make sense to claim that we’ve come up with a single scale that adds up all the varieties of intelligence and summarizes them in a single number. But even if that doesn’t make sense (and I assume it won’t), that doesn’t make the word “intelligence” useless, or meaningless. Despite what you say (somewhat facetiously, I’m guessing) over on Twitter, the word “influence” is meaningful. You’re more influential on the Web than your sons are, for instance. Don’t claim that that’s a meaningless sentence. But there are no criteria – hits or clickthroughs or anything else – that we could use to measure and decide whether you are more influential than, say, Chuck Eddy. The term “influence” is too imprecise for that, and the phenomenon/phenomena too complicated, e.g., confused by Chuck’s being an influence on you, and you on him (but I assume less so) – so if you influence people in directions that Chuck took you, do we assign that influence to you or to Chuck?

  2. 2
    Lex on 7 Jan 2011 #

    The fan relationship is generally far less compliant and more critical than outsiders imagine. And the focus of fans often isn’t the fan-object, it’s the fandom itself, and the codes and ideas which evolve within it.

    Haha I’m surprised this isn’t more obvious to people, given that what the, uh, Beliebers on Twitter have hit the headlines for in the past week (and actually on a regular basis!) is MAKING DEATH THREATS TO HIS GIRLFRIEND.

  3. 3
    Tom on 7 Jan 2011 #

    Beliebers! Thankyou – I was trying to remember that phrase.

    Frank – thanks for the very cogent thoughts, the IQ comparison is excellent. I will try and pull a reply together later on today.

  4. 4
    Lex on 7 Jan 2011 #

    Every time I type Ju$t1n B1eber’s name online it’s with a genuine sense of fear and trepidation, as though a massed army of Beliebers will TRACK ME DOWN within minutes :(

  5. 5
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 7 Jan 2011 #

    i know where you live and i merely am biding my time!

  6. 6
    thefatgit on 7 Jan 2011 #

    Of course, none of this is new. Fandom now has a very loud media voice, compared to The Beatles or The Osmonds or Adam And The Ants or Take That. Twitter and Facebook etc. give incredible amounts of power to the massed ranks of fans compared to the letters page of Smash Hits. Now the Twitterati have to take notice, and those who study such phenomena have to comment.

    News coverage of thousands of screaming teenagers worshipping at the altar of The Fab 4 is a very powerful image, but those teenagers weren’t necessarily driving that particular bandwagon. Now things are changing, where fans are at the controls. Beiber comments on virtually every new music clip on YouTube regardless of who the artist is, is entirely fan-driven, albeit dreadfully annoying. It helped to contribute to the Beiber awareness. The kind of awareness that little Aaron Carter could never dream of a few years back. That’s the sort of “impact” Frank mentions above. You don’t need to see teenage girls fainting at a Beiber gig to know how popular he is. You don’t even need to listen to his records. Just spend a short time on the internet, and you’ll know, for better or worse. How times have changed! Or not.

  7. 7
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 7 Jan 2011 #

    Of course this kind of enhanced media presence actually digs into the practical reality of fandom far more than coverage of Valentino/Sinatra/Beatle/Rollermania… we also get to encounter rifts and gulfs and difference WITHIN the seemingly monolithic screaming mass, bcz it has been able to seize expressve agency, and this means the revealing of internal division and thus politics, however naive (or indeed otherwise)

  8. 8
    koganbot on 7 Jan 2011 #

    Fans in the U.S. are pikers compared to the Koreans. And this brings up something we’ve so far overlooked: the impact of fans on performers and on fans of the performers they don’t like, and on the perception that the fans who do like the performer have of their faves, e.g., Beatles seen as much “nicer” when the comparison is to the Stones, and the Stones as much uglier, threatening etc. But anyhow, Korean fans seem to model their behavior on a particular fan of Steffi Graf in regard to Monica Seles, e.g., throwing acid at members of rival girl groups/boybands and poisoning their water bottles, falling silent at multi-group events during the applause time for the performer one dislikes (with fanclubs having monitors to direct the silent-protests), etc. (see this thread).

    I suppose my impression here is exaggerated, and may be based on only a few instances, though I don’t know. Sabina says, “K-pop has the most insane and deeply frightening fanclub culture ever, and I say this as someone with a full-blown otaku background.”

    We shouldn’t assume that fans and nonfans of, say, Bob Dylan have had no impact on the world, since they can create perceptions and misperceptions of what he and his music are like, the perceptions often running free of the performer. And the commentariat has an effect as well. At least some of my first writing about Dylan, Stones, etc. was to the effect that a lot of their other fans seem to have gotten them wrong, and that a good deal of their popularity was based on a mistake – whereas I, the true fan and critic, in true Dylanesque fashion, was piercing through to the Truth.

    Certainly some of the appeal of performers like Eminem and the Stones is that they were, for a few months in Eminem’s case and for a number of years in the Stones’, among the most hated human beings in the world.

    Supposedly one of Dylan’s motives for making Self Portrait was to piss off a certain type of Dylan fan.

  9. 9
    lonepilgrim on 7 Jan 2011 #

    I’ve been fascinated reading the ‘Pushing ahead of the Dame’ blog as it has revealed how tentative and chaotic Bowie’s working processes have been at a time when fans had elevated him to the status of prophet – and I must admit I think I still harbour a hope that, like King Arthur, when we need Him most, Bowie will answer the call and rise again to release an album which will speak to our new Aeon – although when I put it like that it sounds fairly unlikely

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