Measuring Online Influence – Ridiculously Subjective, Subjectively Ridiculous

Influential? Maybe. But influential about WHAT exactly?

Yes, once again we’re talking about the ultimate divisive topic: Measuring Online Influence. Now, up until just today you’d be very hard pressed to get me to agree that the commonly referenced ‘influence scores’ are anything but arbitrary numbers that depict nothing more than the level of activity observed across the social landscape.

However, my opinion of the logic behind the approach of various influence measurements is now in a state of flux, and it’s the result of the least likely (at least, from my point of view) person who would ever influence me about anything: Justin Bieber.

Personally, I think the ‘manufactured celebrity’ that is ‘the Biebs’ is ridiculous in all forms. And one would assume that his actual ‘influence’ would be negligible to anyone over the age of 15. However, influence is a very subjective term, and can really only be used when talking about influence over a particular topic or action. It needs to be placed in to context, or it just doesn’t make any sense.

Bieber has a perfect Klout score of 100, theoretically making him one of the most influential people online. But influential about what, exactly? What’s the context?

The context for this particular example? Instagram

Bieber posted his first Instagram photo (a shot of a Los Angeles freeway during rush hour) a couple of days ago, and within hours had gained over 1700 followers. Currenty, he sits at over 5300 followers, making him one of the most followed users on the photo sharing service.

According to this article:

http://musically.com/blog/2011/07/22/justin-bieber-joins-instagram-and-sparks-traffic-surge/

“Bieber was picking up 50 Instagram followers a minute in the hours after joining, with one comment every 10 seconds – unprecedented numbers for Instagram, which has seven million users.”

It’s also easy to rationalize that of the 11 million followers he has on Twitter, a portion of them likely ‘discovered’ Instagram as a result and proceeded to download the app and begin using it. He’s essentially increased the speed of adoption of Instagram among a certain demographic (ie: that of his followers).


So, we can safely assume the following course of events:

  1. JB uses Instagram
  2. JB gains thousands of followers on his Instagram account
  3. Instagram gains users from his pool of followers on Twitter
  4. Instagram’s user base increases as more of JB’s followers join
  5. Perceived value of Instagram goes up incrementally as user base grows

It sounds completely ridiculous that one single user can drive such adoption of a photo sharing service, but the proof is there. Justin Bieber has influence over his followers to adopt a new social photo sharing service.

But as you can see, this is one very specific instance of how someone with ‘celebrity’ status can influence a large group of people to adopt a service that doesn’t cost anything to use, and has no barriers to adoption other than simply owning an iPhone. His influence over his followers in other areas is likely insignificant. For example, I don’t imagine he’s influencing people to vote for one particular party, or to choose a specific college, or to choose one brand of car over another.

In addition, the current influence measurement systems have no way to actually distinguish between a topic of actual influence, and one that just generates activity. The two are often mutually exclusive. For example, if you make a mention of ‘elephants’ in a funny tweet that gets spread around, and all of a sudden the current metric systems believe you’re influential about elephants. Hardly an accurate measure of your real online presence, however.
I think that when put in to context, a person’s Klout score, PeerIndex number, or TweetGrader level may actually have an accurate correlation. The problem is identifying that context, and determining if it was simply a one-shot instance, or realistically representative of that persons actual expertise.

What’s my point? Your Klout score or PeerIndex number is fun to see, but should NEVER be used as an actual measure of someones influential value. They simply measure activity, and at best, the likelihood that in a specific instance their endorsement may possibly encourage adoption of certain things. Bottom line: It’s just not possible to measure someone’s influence based solely on activity. There are far too many other factors that come in to play.