Maybe you have heard of Justin Bieber, maybe you haven’t. So here’s a very short biography. He is nearly 17 years old. He is a singer. He has released one well-received album. He has a Twitter account with nearly 7 million followers. And according to some noise published earlier this month, he is more influential than Barack Obama. Actually, let’s tell the whole truth, according to the same survey Obama also lags behind Lady Gaga, who has just short of 8 million Twitter followers. You may be starting to get the idea: President Obama has a Twitter following of ‘only’ about 6 and a half million.
So what’s this all about? Are we just measuring Twitter followers and concluding that this must be the sole basis of power and influence? Well, not quite, but very nearly. This league table of influence was brought to us courtesy of the website klout, which describes itself as the ‘standard for influence’. In fact klout is one of those internet success stories, and it has suddenly caught on. According to its own website, this is what it does:
‘The Klout Score is the measurement of your overall online influence. The scores range from 1 to 100 with higher scores representing a wider and stronger sphere of influence. Klout uses over 35 variables on Facebook and Twitter to measure True Reach, Amplification Probability, and Network Score.’
So let me reveal my own influence: according to klout, my score is 53. Let’s see how that compares with others. Well, the would-be next Taoiseach Enda Kenny beats me by one point and comes in at 54. But I am happy to report that he is the only Irish politician who is more influential than I am, and that no Irish university president or Scottish principal comes even close to competing with me. But I am not the most influential university president globally. Professor Steven Schwartz of Macquarie University is an exact tie with Enda Kenny, at 54 points.
What are we to make of all this? Should we just laugh at such nonsense and conclude it’s trivial? Or is there an argument somewhere to be made about the changing nature of influence in the new world of instant communication?
I wouldn’t spend two minutes worrying about whether Barack Obama really is less influential than Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber, but I would point out that he is in this league table at all, which almost no other politician is. In fact, as we well know, this is entirely connected with his presidential campaign, which took off in part because he was smart enough to understand the political potential of the internet and social networking. We don’t yet see the Chinese president in any of this, but sooner or later, with the Chinese people’s voracious appetite for the internet, that too will come in some shape or form.
As for an academic dimension, some worry that the major source of modern day influence, Twitter, may actually be trivialising scholarship, forcing all academic knowledge into 140 characters and celebrating celebrity rather than vision or insight; this is the theme of an article by Professor Tara Brabazon (klout score: 50) in Times Higher Education. There is a hint in this kind of critique that if you can prompt someone to re-tweet your most recent 140-character thought then neither you nor the thought nor the re-tweeter can amount to much. I can understand why one might say that, but I believe it to be wrong. The message of scholarship doesn’t change, but the means for disseminating it do; if that were not so, we’d be publishing our work on hand-printed vellum.
I suspect that Stephen Hawking is not concerned that his klout score is only 50. But he is there on Twitter, and so are many others who want to share their knowledge, often by referring readers to more detailed presentations of it elsewhere. It would be foolish to believe that using the new media to broaden the scholarly community and shape its influence is wrong.