I was at the Social Media Club – Silicon Valley last night where there was an excellent session on “What is Influence” with Domunique LaHaix (eCairn), Scott Hirsch (getSatisfaction), Jennifer Leggio (Fortinet, ZDNet), Ryan Calo (Stanford CIS) (among others). Great topic, great crowd.
The first question asked of the panel was “What is influence?” and I am going to weigh in here because I don’t think that anyone got to the core of what is influence online, how you grow it, how you maintain it. This is going to be like a Celtic design – I am going to weave in many topics that, to this point, have only been discussed disparately but, which to my mind, make up the whole quilt of influence online.
Influence can be considered the power to persuade others to some end. Now you would say “well that’s a definition.” But in the case of online, it is a necessary, but sufficient condition for the definition. In many cases, people influence online with no intention to persaude. In some cases, as in the case of a search algorithm, influence is created almost by default by the items returned from the search and the sort order in which they appear. I mean, if this blog appears in position 31 in Google, how much influence can I have? Or as another example, if the mullahs in Iran wanted to prevent any other viewpoints from being top of mind other than their own, they would create a search engine that only returned the results they wanted people to see.
In order to understand what influence is online, we have to understand WHY it is.
So the first question: why does anyone bother with social media? Why spend your time on it? Why actively participate in it? The simple reason is that social media is based on gift giving – in this case the gift of information. In his book, Influence: The Psychology of Persausion, Robert Cialdini discusses the six “click-whirr” responses which, when triggered, can get you an automatic and predictable response from most people. The most powerful of these is reciprocity. Imagine for a moment I ask you for a recommendation on LinkedIn about my performance at a place where we both worked? What’s the likelihood you will respond to the request. If statistics are any guide, about 33%. If, however, I first give you a recommendation on LinkedIn, the likelihood you will respond to my request is 66%.
Why the difference? Simple. We are genetically wired for cooperation, not competition. It’s how we survived as small, hairless, vulnerable proto-humans on the savannah against wild beasts and other threats. If I do something nice for you, you feel almost obligated to do something nice for me. If you don’t believe this is a genetic trait, then also read Frans de Wall’s Our Inner Ape, where you will see that this behavior is prevalent in chimpanzees (our nearest living cousins), as well.
So why am I blogging? Why do I respond to comments on Facebook? Why do I tweet? I mean beyond the obvious fact I may enjoy it and I can keep up with my friends. Why does social media exist at all – why are humans wired in such a way that social media actually works? At its most fundamental level the answer is gift giving. People who write provide the gift of information – think about how many tweets include a link to some web page. So, by necessity, I feel some pull to return the gift and give information back.
That’s the fundamental mechanism that makes social media work – enjoyment, need to keep up with people and an infinite pipe of information, are built on that behavioral foundation. Without the reciprocity rule around information, social media would be nice, but humans wouldn’t respond to the stimulus.
That is the first extension of the concept of influence. There is a second underlying mechanism at work – and it shows up clearly in the behavior of people who grew up with the Internet from birth and those who did not. This behavior relates to the way the generations learn and collect information Those who are (approximately) 40+ have a different mindset. There brains are wired (literally) for linear learning. They read books or articles and went relatively deep into the content. You may recall the quaint notion of “speed reading” where, in order to take in enough information, people learned to read quickly to garner “the gist” of longer articles or books. Basically, this was the older generation’s way of dealing with information overload. An additional technique, which approached the information overload issue by going deeper into fewer sources, was to scan the table of contents of a magazine or book and only read the articles/chapters that seemed relevant.
The problem is the Internet doesn’t just cause information overload. It is effectively an infinite source of data. There is no way any human being could ever in a hundred years find and digest everything they would need to know on the subjects important to them. Relevant results from search engines help when you want to “go deep” on a single subject, but when it comes to looking widely across all our interests, it is completely impossible to gather a reasonable subset of information by yourself.
So the 20-something generation has learned to use the eyes and ears of their peers to act as search engines for relevant content across the range of their interests. The stream of information is in multiple parallel threads from numerous sources. We call it multitasking, but in reality it is better called multigrazing. By staying in touch through social media, the digital generation can consume more information across a broader range of topics than any individual could do alone. And the relevance is higher because it comes from trusted sources: their friends or people they follow who share their concerns/interests.
So tying this back to the gift of information: the need for better, more efficient means for collecting relevant information combines with the gift-giving nature of social media to create a powerful behavioral motivator for digital learners to participate in social media – and that is the why of influence as it relates to human interactions online.
What about the definition of influence as it relates to machine-based entities like Google? As mentioned before, search engines are a tool for an individual to cut through the clutter of an infinite multithreaded data stream and find the most relevant “deep links” - published information – on a specific topic. They can also get relevant information from their social web of contacts (the social web, for short), but that tends to be more random, “shallower”, and less immediate. This suggests that the search engine, by its very nature, has influence, since its algorithm determines what is useful. The latest case of this is the recent change in Google’s algorithm to favor big brands (see Google’s Vince Update Produces Big Brand Rankings; Google Calls It A Trust “Change”), which I have been ranting about to anyone who will listen. Basically, Google has determined that “big brands” are a more authoritative source of information about themselves than third parties. But is that really true, say, in the case where a company’s product doesn’t work and bloggers are covering the fallout? How many times have I been hired by Fortune 500′s to push unfavorable comments about them off the first page of the SERPS, even though they were factually accurate? Now I don’t have to work as hard. Google is doing the work for me. And I’m sure that the fact that Google is trying to generate more Adwords revenue from big brands has nothing to do with it.
THAT is the influence of an algorithm. It is not about the power to persuade, per se. It is about the power to choose what is relevant to a conversation, based on some programmer’s (group of programmer’s) views of what relevance means. And no matter how much you can look to the research and say that you are following good Information Architecture design that is intended to be value neutral, it is impossible in reality to achieve that. It’s like asking a human to manually generate a random number – it isn’t possible. The bias can be consciously or unconsciously embedded in the algorithm, but it is there.
In other words, the search engine is like a trusted person – you can think of it as an avatar – that you also use to allow you to deal with the infinite information of the web. Only this trusted source goes deep into a subject with immediacy, rather than helping with your multigrazing. It is the Internet equivalent of a table of contents, whereas multigrazing is the Internet equivalent of speed reading. Add like a trusted friend, you give the gift of information back to the search engine in the form of your click behavior, which is one of the factors our current generation of search engines use to determine the relevance of specific documents. What is not the same in this relationship is that you cannot know what bias is built into the algorithm and how it changes over time, which it does many times without any notification by the major search engines.
So now we can go back and define influence in its online context. Influence is the ability to share relevant information with others who share a common interest or concern, in the hopes that they will, in turn, give the gift of information back to you. Human or avatar, it is the same definition. Both humans and search engines have their biases they bring to the conversation. The only difference is you probably know something about the inherent biases of your friends or trusted human sources, whereas with a search engine you can only infer it, and even then it changes so often that effectively the bias can’t be known.
That’s it. So what do you think of that logic? Please tell.