Measuring influence in today’s world

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.

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10 Comments on “Measuring influence in today’s world”

  1. I’m sure Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga are influential, but, honestly, I’d never heard about Justin Bieber until July this year and it was from a 12 year-old American boy (I’m a 26 year-old woman who spent the last 20 months in Europe). I had definitely heard Lady Gaga (and love her) in Europe but my respect for her is totally different than for Obama. I think that following someone on Facebook or Twitter doesn’t mean much. I am friends with people I have met only a few times, but I’m also friends with my parents on Facebook. They have the same ‘status’ on Facebook, but totally different influence levels in real life.

  2. Vincent Says:

    Amplification Probability. Does this mean the git is near certain to get louder.

  3. Jilly Says:

    I think there’s some confusion of terms in this article with regard to Twitter and scholarship, between ‘dissemination’ and ‘publicity’.

    So to take the most cliched example possible, if Einstein were working today and had a Twitter account with, say, 1 million followers, he could use it to announce that he had formulated the Theory of Relativity. However, it is not possible to express the Theory of Relativity (comprehensibly) in 140 characters. So those 1 million people would then know that there was such a thing as the Theory of Relativity, but they wouldn’t know what it was. This would not be the dissemination of scholarship, but simply the publicizing of it. Its dissemination would be the proportion of those 1 million followers who then decided to read the full Theory.

    So there’s certainly nothing wrong with publicizing scholarship (via any means, including Twitter), and doing so will probably result in its dissemination to more people than would otherwise have read it (though in all likelihood a fairly small proportion of those who have seen the publicity), which is all good. But a restricted form of communication such as Twitter is NOT a method of actual dissemination – this may seem a matter of semantics, but it’s not, because there is a large and very important difference between being aware that something exists, and actually understanding it.

    • Vincent Says:

      ‘Papyrus on cover of 5C book found in Irish bog.’ Is even narrower than your Einstein. Narrow in the sense of those that can fully understand the implications.
      Surely the value of twitter is with those that have the background information with the connections and are ready for a higher level of info. A bit like telegrams to members of a masonic lodge.

    • In fairness (to me!), Jilly, I did say that: ‘… so are many others who want to share their knowledge, often by referring readers to more detailed presentations of it elsewhere.’

  4. jfryar Says:

    I think the issues you raise here are incredibly significant. Who, for example, has the greater on-line influence: the professional scientists actually conducting research on climate change, or the armchair climatologists who’ve no training whatsoever and have cobbled together a flawed understanding?

    My concern is not that Lady Gaga has more followers than Obama, but that Lady Gaga’s opinions on an issue will find a greater audience and agreement than the opinions of true experts.

  5. anna notaro Says:

    “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.”

    This is a highly problematic statement, not surprisingly media scholars have been debating the medium/message relationship for the best part of the last 50 years. I tend to agree with Birkens when he states:

    I do not accept the argument that a word is a word no matter where it appears. There is no pure `word’ that does not inhabit context inextricably. I don’t think the medium is absolutely the message, but I do think that the medium conditions the message considerably. A word incised in stone (to be extreme) asks to be read as a word incised; a word skywritten (to be extreme again) asks to be looked at as such. A word on the page at some level partakes of–participates in–the whole history of words on pages, plays in that arena.(S.Birkens, 1994)

    Diseminating scholarship via Twitter DOES change the message because it partakes of a distinctive communication network.

    I also agree with Tara when she argues that: ‘The conflation of celebrity culture and Klout’s measurement of “influence” confirms the consequences of an oversharing culture.’

    The same conflation of celebrity and influence also characterizes your post, although I would not be as alarmed as Tara about the ‘over’, the excessive dimension of culture-sharing facilitated by digital technology, culture is ALL about sharing, if anything we need to develop better analytical skills in order to manage efficently the information we receive.

    You nail it in conclusion to your post when you argue that ‘It would be foolish to believe that using the new media to broaden the scholarly community and shape its influence is wrong.’
    Agreed we cannot afford to be as foolish, provided that such an activity does not fall under the ‘impact’ research agenda! As Tara aptly reminds us:
    ‘Klout promotes itself as “the Standard for Influence”. Just as the research excellence framework overpacked the term “impact”… These concepts are so vague that they can be shaped to suit any agenda’.

  6. cormac Says:

    It’s a pity about the name.I suspect there are a lot of people like me who simply can’t get past that stupid name. Twitter, twit, twit.

  7. Maree Says:

    I wonder if the value of Twitter is less about influence and more about awareness?

    This is the key point for me: “so are many others who want to share their knowledge, often by referring readers to more detailed presentations of it elsewhere.”

    Twitter is a way of publicising research and scholarship and that’s it – there’s no suggestion (and should never be) that tweeting a research report automatically means there’s a quality tag attached to it. Or worse, as Anna says, that numbers of Twitter followers or re-tweets is ever a measure of research impact. Suggesting that 140 characters is enough to explain anything substantial was never the point – you need to go somewhere else to find out the details –

    There are some really smart people on Twitter and a lot of twits (liked that, cormac) – like anything, you have to filter the information to find the useful stuff. It’s rapidly becoming a content aggregation site for me, where I go to find out interesting things from smart people, unfollow those who tweet the stupid and inane, or the motivational quotes (please…no more), and then seek out further information using more ‘traditional’ research approaches.

    It has a place, but it’s not about influence.

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