Influencers with millions of followers can command a lot of attention, and with that attention they can bring in a lot of media dollars. So when an article appears like the New York Times’ exposé article on the fake follower economy, it’s bound to shake things up.
So is influencer marketing doomed? What’s really going on here?
The NYT article unveils a shady world of followers-for-hire, where tens of thousands of impersonated profiles can be bought to follow you on Twitter for a fee. It’s something we’ve been wary of in the influencer team for quite a while, but this is the first time it’s really bubbled up to mainstream attention.
Real influence isn’t just about your follower count on social media. That’s instinctively obvious to most people I talk to.
Nevertheless, follower count does seem important in working out how influential a person is, somehow. How does this fit together?
The Appearance of Importance
One of the problems that makes this tricky is that appearing influential is one of the things that makes a person influential.
In the age of Twitter, that means follower counts. Maintaining a social media presence has become an inextricable part of public life in the 21st century. Follower counts are noted by anyone and everyone as some sort of proxy for how important a person is. But it’s just appearance. In his response to the NYT article, Ian Bogost attacked very astutely the cult of the appearance of influence. He’s got a point.
But focusing on the appearance of influence is nothing new, and there’s a reason for it. There is a pressure today to appear influential, yes, but this has always been the case. Hawaiian feather helmets, the invention of the lawn, even the expensive watch – what are these but ostentatious displays of power, and therefore influence? These are all signals that say “listen to me, I am important!”
In our days, a large social media follower count is just another entry on this list of excess.
I think what Ian missed in his article is the paradox that the appearance of influence actually is one of the things that makes a person genuinely influential.
The appearance of influence attracts attention – like a feather helmet – and makes it more likely that its wearer will have an opportunity to exert genuine influence.
Measuring Actual Influence
No one can deny that influence, in and of itself, is real. The right word whispered into the right ear at the right time has always made all the difference in the world. This is what humans do, right? We are the apes who communicate, we do things together. And that means influencing each other is an intrinsic part of human experience.
That’s why measuring genuine influence is important. The only reason people are putting so much store in follower counts is that, until now, it’s the only thing that we’ve been able to measure. “Can this person command the attention of a large audience? Yes! Bang, they must be influential!”
But we know that’s not real influence. That’s just the appearance of influence. And that’s important, sure. But that’s not all.
This is exactly the reason that we developed the 4-dimensional RARA system in the first place. By measuring Relevance, Authority, and Accessibility as well as number of followers, we can get a much better idea of who is really influential on a topic.
One of the challenges in our industry, I think, is that people often conflate “influencer” (i.e. a person who has influence, a person who can change minds) with “social media influencer” (i.e. a person who is internet famous and can carry brand messages because they have a lot of followers they want to monetize).
Influence in the first case is based on a person’s genuine place in a network of human relationships.
These relationships still exist, underneath the social media surface.
With the work my team does, we use social media data as a signal and a proxy for uncovering genuine influence – the social media data are just the signs we can read, with our technology.
But what we’re really trying to get at is the real relationships of influence beneath these signals.
The rise of software-based social network apps like Facebook and Twitter hasn’t created influencers. It’s just made their activity more visible to people like us.
That’s why follower-gate is important, and also why it isn’t. Follower-gate demonstrates the bluster and fraud at the centre of an industry sector overshadowed in hype. But it also reinforces the importance of understanding that true influence lies beneath these indicators – ready to be discovered and understood by those with the right tools and the intelligence to use them.