Influence Is Not Star Juice

futurelab default header

“Influentials” is a funny word that makes me think of someone sick with influenza, with a runny nose and a feverish delirium. That aside, Merriam-Webster offers an amusing definition of influence as “an ethereal fluid held to flow from the stars and to affect the actions of humans.”

Which is exactly how our industry imagines the “influentials” — the more star juice they have, the more influential they are. (Here’s an example from Brian Solis: “Influence is the ability to cause desirable and measurable actions and outcomes.”)

Only it’s not like you can buy star juice by the gallon, and so nobody can quite figure out what “more” means. Klout’s kscore measures observable outcomes: clicks, retweets and other similar stuff. Other formulas are fancier: “Influence = (Personal Brand * Knowledge * Trust2)”. These and similar approaches to measuring influence are wrong for two reasons.

One is that considering only observable behavioral outcomes such as clicks could lead us to confuse influence with conformity, authority and power:

Conformity occurs when an individual expresses a particular opinion or behavior in order to fit in to a given situation or to meet the expectations of a given other. Power is the ability to force or coerce someone to behave in a particular way by controlling her outcomes. Authority is power that is believed to be legitimate (rather than coercive) by those who are subjected to it.” (source: pdf)

Social influence is a social phenomenon (no kidding), doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and involves at least two people — an object A and a subject B. And the bigger problem with the “star juice” definitions is that they focus exclusively on A, count the number of Bs, and completely ignore the relationship between the two. In other words, these definitions suggest that influence is an absolute attribute of A, sort of like weight, only expressed in the number of Bs.

Herbert Kelman, a long-time scholar of social influence at Harvard, defines (pdf, url) influence as an outcome of interaction between A and B:

– “Social influence can be said to have occurred whenever a person changes his behavior as a result of induction by another person or group.

– “The definition of social influence implies at least some degree of resistance to change that has to be overcome.”

– “Social influence represents an aspect of the relationship between [A] and [B] within a social system in which both occupied specified positions.”

– Influence can be positive or negative. “Negative influence refers to a change in a direction opposite to that induced by the influencing agent.”

To sum up:

– “Influence” describes A as much as it describes B

–  Influence is situational

–  Not all behavioral change is an outcome of an “influence situation”

–  On the other hand, a lack of change can also be an outcome of an “influence situation” (negative influence)

In this context, measuring someone’s influence with a yardstick makes about as much sense as reading the distance from Boston to New York from a thermometer, but at least you’ll get some number.

(…more soon)

Image by: aafromaa

Original Post: