After working on a social network analytics system for two years, here are some initial thoughts on the meaning and value of the many economies proposed as foundations for measuring social networks. My contention: Influence, the conversion of one's basic ability to attend to and convert the raw material of their life into meaning that, as the OED puts it, has "the capacity to have an effect on the character,Influence is incredibly specific, personal and peered. development, or behavior of someone or something," is the productive feature of the networked economy it is most important to measure and understand. Influence takes work—it is work in the networked economy—and we know how to measure the value of human effort.
We've heard about the attention economy (not to neglect this attention economy, either), the intention economy, the concept of authority, and word-of-mouth. The former two economies suggest that certain basic actions, what one pays attention to and what they want to do or buy, are where value resides in its most fundamental form, but these approaches atomize value within the individual's world to a degree that suggests the individual's contribution to the economy is merely passive, requiring no work. In the latter economy, "word-of-mouth" is simply a description of the transmission mechanism, but the practice is mired in trying to collect the people in markets into definable demographic groups that are linked by words rather than understanding the individuals that make up the market. I'll address authority in a moment.
As I've written before, I think people ought to own and control their attention data. If a company or a sports league can claim its raw data is valuable, the individual certainly should be able to do the same. That data can be valuable to advertisers who want to approach someone with an offer, for example. Doc Searls has proposed an intention economy, in which expressed preferences ("intentions") become the raw material of transactions and, therefore, can be a kind of currency. Says Doc: "Why build an economy around Attention, when Intention is where the money comes from?"
Steve Gillmor has written persuasively about attention and gestures, the positive and negative ways we refer to things and people, which can be used to assess a person's attitude toward a site, a product or a service. By aggregating and anonymizing that data set, a market can be made in expressing those preferences. This is certainly true.
And, because we all do this all day long, it makes a lot of sense to use that data to tease out meaning. However, when it comes to the actual work of translating attention into meaning in a way that changes other people's minds in a meaningful way, individuals are still the mainspring of the economy, whether they work in groups or on their own to influence others. In fact, a GestureBank of anonymized attention data would be an influencer and have significant value in the market, but so could a blogger or a news site. If we are going to understand the value they each create, we have to measure their impact on the market using a common metric, which is influence.
Influence, the common metric BuzzLogic proposes, can allow each influencer to be compensated fairly for the value they add to the market by: a.) reducing the complexity of decision-making by customers, and; b.) contributing to the market success of products or services in ways analogous to how advertising and marketing investments do in the mass media. Distributing that value across the Web would be a profound source of funding for mash-ups and blog-, podcast- and vlog-based media.
Influence, then, is the topic-specific ability to shape the conversational market and decisions made based on participation in social networks. It is the result of a person or organization ingesting all the raw material, from information to other links, and shaping postings that have enduring impact on the market or issue under discussion. Advertisers and marketers need to understand it in order to deploy their resources to address influencers and respond appropriately in the market. Political campaigns need to track influence in order to find rising issues and thought leaders that can translate sentiment into electoral success. Product developers and executives need to embrace influence so that they can assess when the feedback they are getting from the market is most meaningful, whether that feedback is good or bad, so that they can better direct their investments to respond.
Influence is also composed of in- and out-bound links, since engagement with others is a key element of the trust relationship that creates influence between people. Likewise, trust builds on both topic-specific and generic communication. The reason a blogger with a lot of traffic can have more influence on a discussion they've newly entered is that they have a foundation of trust to build on. Mainstream media, because they aggregate many voices that compensate for the lapses of individual voices' veracity, have built a solid foundation of trust, too (even now, with the mistakes by major newspapers being pointed out more actively by bloggers, networks and web sites retain their audiences).
The advent of personal publishing (blogging, podcasting, vlogging) creates many more opportunities for establishing trust relationships around specific topics that can be utilized to exert influence. That's where micro-ecosystems will coalesce and rise to challenge entrenched markets. Dave Sifry calls this the "magic middle," and, indeed, it is in the middle of the power curve (which Dave calls an "attention curve") that the battle will take place. Influence, however, is grown in the far end of the long tail, out in the small networks that establish enduring influence relationships because individuals and organizations have cultivated the customers or supporters that they bring to bear in the battle for marketshare, an election or simple concurrence. The magic middle is the "chasm" we used to obsess about crossing, where many influencers are aggregated to create hits. Influence provides more granular social insight than authority or Page Rank, both of which are more suitable for finding documents than the people who shape thinking.
Let's turn to authority. Technorati describes authority as being related to the number of links made to a blog. This is an excellent aggregate number to understand the audience size of a blog.
Influence is not a generic phenomenon, it is incredibly specific, personal and peered, in that it is based on trust between many edge nodes that collect to support a viewpoint in the market. We may point to a site, like Robert Scoble's blog, when talking about Microsoft, and a lot of people may talk about Microsoft, giving Robert a very high authority score. But we can do a simple experiment to see that Scoble's topical relevance to see that, when it comes to specific Microsoft issues or products, his "Microsoft" authority does not translate into influence in conversations in many specific discussions. Try searching Technorati for "Microsoft" with a "high level of authority" and you will find that Scoble comes up in the first few pages of 1.6 million results in virtually every search over a week (so, too, would ZD Net). But search for "'Microsoft Vista exception handling" and Scoble vanishes. Almost everything vanishes, except for a posting by Tim O'Reilly, Emezata.com and a ZD Net posting about XBox 360.
Authority is, basically, a mass media metric for a personal media world.
Scoble has a huge presence in discussions that include Microsoft, but he barely participates in most discussions about most specific Microsoft issues. That's not to knock Robert or Technorati, just to make a point that it is easy to characterize the number of links a blog gets over time as representing its ability to reach an audience, but saying that a blog is shaping topic-specific conversations because of its authority ranking is fallacious. Technorati is a great tool for keeping up on what is being said. It doesn't tell you who is defining the conversation consistently.
Instead, when it comes to who is shaping opinion, the metric needs to represent the topicality of the conversation, the temporary nature of influence—since one actually needs to be engaged in topic-specific discussions consistently in order to sustain topic-specific influence over time—and the role of amplifiers of discussions, the people or sites that aggregate and repeat ideas to broaden access to the market in order to characterize who is creating value (which can be positive or negative, based on what asset or value one is seeking to defend or grow) rather than simply paying attention.
As I wrote earlier, GestureBank or an intention aggregator could be a huge influencer on any topic, but it cannot measure its own influence in the market, it can just churn out data that may translate into value. Likewise, in our research at BuzzLogic, we consistently find that by being open and communicative, a company can make its Web site and blogs into resources for people to use to talk about their products and competitors, creating a lot of value for the audience, but also for the company investing in its influence on the market. We also find that Technorati tags shape influence, as do Google search results, Digg and Memeorandum links.
Everything going on in the community attempting to understand social networks is valuable and important. In some ways, we are living in a time like that of Isaac Newton, Christian Huygens and Gottfried Leibniz, where forces of nature were just being calculated for the first time even though the actual mechanisms were not thoroughly or correctly understood--brilliant insights like the theory of gravitation relied on ideas of absolute space and a universal aether to explain what the predictions were actually describing.
Maybe that ambiguity is why "influence" is an attractive to word to me. The original source of the word comes from the same ideas as those that informed Newton. "Influence" was originally the "supposed flowing or streaming from the stars or heavens of an etherial fluid acting upon the character and destiny of men, and affecting sublunary things generally." Influence also encompasses the positive and negative interactions of people, as it is just as easy to be under a bad influence as good. We can only see the outcome of that influence and, even, measure it in action because in social networks words and links can be parsed and counted, while we don't fully undertand how the whole system works.
Influence, like gravity, is the mechanism that moves the networked market. The mass of planets account for gravity, the work of people produces influence. How people take raw data, in the form of attention or preferences, and make value isn't fully explained, but it is measurable today and will continue to be more accessible to our analysis in the future.
If you follow baseball, you may know that the old ideas of player value, like earned run average and batting average, have given way to a wide range of contextually aware statistics that account for many more variables that influence the outcome of a whole game or season. Nevertheless, fans and announcers often fall back on ERA and batting average to describe players, because they are familiar back-of-the-baseball-card statistics, despite the fact they cloud our understanding of the game. We're seeing the same behavior in talk about social networks.
Today, in social networks, we have some massy general lists we rely on to describe the importance of bloggers, like the Technorati 100; they are not situational and specific, but they have the virtue of being familiar. In the future, however, we'll all be able to treat our social performance like a game that can be described with sophisticated metrics. Some folks will be pros, but most will be amateurs, yet everyone will be able to compare themselves and the value they create in different conversations, just as weekend duffers use par and handicapping to compare their golf game to Tiger Woods'.
We're moving as an industry from massy aggregate statistics to finer grained approaches to measurement. And, someday, we'll probably have a quantum social theory. For now, we have influence, which I think will prove itself a powerful tool amongst the many sources of raw and processed data that define markets.