Participation and Influence in Social Media

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by: David Jennings

This post is a little update on one of themes I explored in the book concerning how people are different in the levels of commitment, participation and influence they bring to discovering culture. I started out with some market research about different kinds of music fans: "Savants", "Enthusiasts", "Casuals" and "Indifferents" (see full post about this classification).

It doesn’t seem far-fetched to imagine that some similar gradation of interest occurs in most, if not all, other fields. But then I speculated that this classification might map onto the different kinds of participation in social media proposed by Bradley Horowitz, where he distinguised

  • Creators — 1% of the user population might start a group (or a thread within a group)
  • Synthesisers — 10% of the user population might participate actively, and actually author content whether starting a thread or responding to a thread-in-progress
  • Consumers — 100% of the user population benefits from the activities of the above groups (lurkers)

And then I went further and speculated about mapping that onto the distinction that some marketers make between advocates/influencers, ‘brand adorers’ and ‘brand adopters’.

I mentioned in the book that it was questionable whether a pyramid is always the right way to represent these classifications. It implies a very top-down, one-way dynamic of influence. Intuition and everyday experience suggests that life isn’t like that, and I gave examples of the most committed music fans being influenced indirectly by the more casual fans (Lord save us from being thought to share mainstream tastes!). But everyone seems to use pyramids to show influence, and that’s the bit that stuck, while my nuanced caveats got forgotten. It still haunts me, which is why I have to write blog ‘updates’ like this…

But what prompted the return of this spectre was a couple of recent blog posts on participation and influence. First, Jay Cross shared the six levels of participation — represented as a ladder this time — identified by Jeremiah Owyang, a Forresters analyst:

  • Creators
  • Critics
  • Collectors
  • Joiners
  • Spectators, and
  • Inactives

Forresters’ research leads them to distinguish different distributions of these six types between different age groups and between different continents. But for no population do the Creators count for less than 10%, which shows they’re not using the terms the same way as Horowitz (see Jay’s post for their definition).

The second post was one of Mark Earls’ frequent broadsides about the nature of influence.

We see influence (what folk do to each other on our behalf) where emulation (of what folk around us are doing) is the real mechanic behind the spread of human behaviour.

We’ve just got the wrong end of the stick: we humans are not a species of "influential" individuals but emulators — Homo Mimickus. Like most social creatures, but more so…

He’s right, of course — that’s one reason why the pyramid is wrong. But saying there is no elite of massively influential people whom the rest of us follow slavishly is one thing (you’d have to swallow Malcolm Gladwell hook, line and sinker — and rather misguidedly — to believe that). It would be another thing to deny that some people are more influential than others. In Mark’s terms, some people inspire emulation more than others.

And just as committed fans can be counter-influenced by the mainstream, as I suggested above, there can also be anti-emulation or counter-mimicry. One reason we haven’t all emulated SUV drivers, even when we could, is that we’d like to make it clear that we’re a completely different species from them.

Where does all this leave us? We’re dealing with complex systems, and patterns of social dynamics that are impossible to visualise accurately. Don’t get hung up on the classifications — are there three, four, six or 26? Answer: none of the above. If anyone tells you their research shows the true answer, ignore them, because they’ve misunderstood the whole field. Is participation and influence in social media properly represented as a pyramid, a ladder, a network or an octopus? Answer: none of the above.

But it can be useful to simplify — as long as you remember that’s what you’re doing. In sub-atomic physics electrons’ position relative to the nucleus is a probability wave. Hardly anyone can visualise a probability wave, so we imagine the electrons orbiting the nucleus like planets orbiting the sun. That’s a false picture, but it’s satisfying, and sometimes it can even be useful. It gives us just enough confidence to go on.

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