Technically Philly recently cross-posted a piece to Philadelphia Magazine concerning the most influential Twitter users in Philadelphia. Twitter - along with general social bookmarking sites - have always intrigued me in terms of influence; how emerging topics in the social networks can indicate trends in the real world. This localized aspect of Twitter is also very interesting to me. I can think of a specific example from my recent vacation.
How Influence Matters
Around here at home, the kids have gone crazy for these things called "silly bandz". They're basically rubber bands molded to take a specific shape, like animals or cars or dinosaurs. There are different kinds. Some glow in the dark, some are tie-dyed, some are rare shapes. It's not uncommon to see kids around here wrapped with armfuls of them. But on vacation in Williamsburg, Virginia, there was no sign of them. Maybe Silly Bands are a global fad, and I was just noticing an anomaly caused by a pocket of vacationers, but from my perspective this seems like an instance of having a localized trend, something that reminds me of the Hush Puppies chapter Malcolm Gladwell's book, The Tipping Point. While I'm sure that rids wearing shaped rubber bands is hardly worth noting to most people, the detection of such a trend seems of obvious importance, since a method that could detect this could probably also be used to detect election trends or public opinion on more important matters.
The debate seems to be over not just who is the most influential, but what qualifies a person as being influential in the first place. The article seems to suggest that merely the number of followers you have is the indicator of how influential you are. I'm not sure I agree with that. Here's an example. Robert Pattinson is the star of the Twilight movies. (He's the "vampire", and no, I didn't know his name before I went looking just now.) He is on Twitter. He currently has 245,762 followers. That's more than all but one of the people in the Technically Philly list. I can't for the life of me explain why that would make him more influential than, say, Daniel Inouye who has only 723 followers! (Yeah, you didn't know who that was, did you? Sad.)
Clearly, something's amiss.
Spheres of Influence
Obviously, if it comes to running our government and appropriating funds, Mr. Inouye is going to be much more influential than Mr. Pattinson. On the other hand, when influencing teenage girls, the opposite would clearly hold true. So it's a matter of perspective. Also, consider the scale of audience to influence. I may hold great sway (ha!) over PHP developers in Chester County. But the scale of my audience is quite small. The scale of Pattinson's audience is significantly larger, but perhaps less rich. Overall, he addresses more people, but how hard does he have to try to convince his audience of something? One should also consider the quality of the influence. If Pattinson told his audience that they should all go out and buy his latest music album (don't they all make them these days?), he'd probably have good success with it. If I told anyone to do anything, they'd just scoff at me. This is kind of what I'd expect even from Inouye's 700 followers, really, even though he probably has more overall influence on matters important to everyone.
Types of (Crazy) Twitter Users
Just like in any media, there are both consumers and publishers of Twitter content. I think these both must also be taken into account when assessing influence. Whether a Twitter user's original content is within their Twitter stream or linked to from Twitter to elsewhere should be a contributor to influence. Should a Twitter account that simply broadcasts news website updates be called "influential"? No way. Here's a weird thought: Assume Pattinson started with zero followers like we all did. Maybe before Twilight he only had a handful of friends there as followers and was just as influential among his friends as any of us would be. But then he's in the movie, and he starts to accumulate followers. Does his wider reach on Twitter now make him more influential? Or is he influential because of his status gained via his role in the movie? Plus, have you noticed how people follow other people - like Pattinson - just because they like that person? There's no way on Twitter to say "I identify with this person" or "I enjoy this person's work" without following them. (Just tweet it! That seems the most reasonable way!) The act of following someone seems to help people identify with them. There are people I see with thousands of followees and I can't help but wonder how they keep track of the conversations. But they don't. There are tons of people who just follow to follow and don't really read what anyone has to say. Or they just use software to filter it out. I wonder if those 200k+ people really hang on Pattinson's every word... Anyway, all of this adds up to the fact that using the number of followers is a completely distorted metric for finding influential people on Twitter.
Gloria Bell makes a decent point, that influence is defined by how many people you put into action by your words, online or offline. I don't know how to measure that; I can't think of an API or algorithm that will neatly sum that up for a news blog. Who is influential can be a deeply personal thing to each of us. Jon Gruber has about as much direct influence on my day as any random Twitter user I'd meet, yet he's in the Technically Philly list. I've actually met Gruber in person, and he's still not had that much influence on me. I'd be interested to see who the top few people are that those Twitter users consider most influential to them from the stream of people they follow. So I admit I follow Kat Dennings, who is an actress, and who I enjoy reading, but I'm sad to say -- she's not really influencing me that much. On the other hand, Chris J Davis is someone who always makes me so envious of his dedication to his family, his style of living, and his abundant creativity. And Sean Coates is another example of someone who always seems to have something useful to say, whether it's an insight about code or beer that I hadn't considered, or some provoking opinion on a random off-topic, it often results in a change in something I do, or plan, or think. These guys, to me, are influential, and there is a high percent of people in my list like this. (Sorry if you guys are reading this and I put you on the spot, there.)
I actually enjoy following people who I find inspirational in that way. Oddly, there are people I follow that I find influential, but not on Twitter. On Twitter, it's mostly silly photos or quips or "OH: something funny." I don't expect Twitter to be a philosophical haven, and I don't expect people to use Twitter how I would want them to (hey, I'm not all Dalai Lama on Twitter either), but it's surprising to me how much trite noise there is to sift through from people who I would consider secret, unsolicited mentors outside of Twitter. There are probably a good many people that I should follow instead of some of the people on my list. Perhaps we should all share these lists of people we individually find influential. More than just a "Follow Friday". We could then discover who among everyone has the most true influence. But really, after all, does that matter as long as we're all exerting and consuming the influence we expect for ourselves?