The State of Influencers Theory [Infographic]

From Moses’ clay tablets, to the Old Spice Guy, to Fred Wilson’s blog, influencers have been influencin’ since the dawn of time.

Contrary to popular belief, you can’t just wake up one day and decide to create an Internet meme. Something doesn’t go viral until it has been thoroughly embraced and shared by the masses. And how does it get to that point? People who have unique insight and respect from their peers influence other people. And, therefore, play an important role in helping the content, meme, or idea along. The word that we use to describe these kinds of people is “influencer” (I also have friends and strategists who prefer “tastemaker” — but only the hip ones. Influencer is pretty industry standard).

Malcolm Gladwell wrote in The Tipping Point that, “A very small number of people are connected to everyone else in a few steps — the rest of us are linked to the world through those special few.” One of my favorite thinkers in the space and another DC powerhouse Geoff Livingston discusses Gladwell’s theory and several others in his book Welcome to the Fifth Estate — including an entire section on the “History of Influencer Theory” on the social web.

As with the Big Bang and the extinction of dinosaurs, there’s not just one theory about influencers, there are several. Livingston breaks it down like this:

  • The Tipping Point (2000) by Malcolm Gladwell:  Movements are caused by three types of influencers; connectors, mavens (subject matter experts), and salesmen.
  • Six Degrees/Weak Ties (2003) by Duncan Watts: Data analysis shows influencers rarely start contagious movements, instead average citizens provide the spark.
  • One Percenters (2006) Jackie Huba & Ben McConnell: It is the content creators amongst Internet communities that drive online conversations.
  • The Magic Middle (2006) by David Sifry: The middle tier of content creators and voices break stories and discussing that trickle up into widespread contagious events.
  • The Groundswell (2008) by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff: Movements start within communities, and leaders rise up out of the community, and can have many roles including content creator, critic, and collector.
  • Trust Agents (2009) by Chris Brogan and Julien Smith: Influencers are people who build online trust and relationships whose communities look to them for advice and direction.
  • Free Agents (2010) by Beth Kanter & Allison Fine: These trusted influencers are independent of traditional command and control organizations, and crash into the walls of storied cultures.
  • Leaderboards (2010-11): Influence can be quantified by online actions taken by a person’s community, including retweets, mentions, comments, and more.
  • To visualize how these theories all come together in the social web, Livingston partnered with JESS3 to create The State of Influencer Theory infographic. Here’s the result of our first brainstorming session:
    And the evolution of the infographic:









    And the final product (click to enlarge):

    I am interested to see if there are further (re)evolutions of the theories and the activity of influencers. I tend to think we are not going to change a whole lot from our current state of what motivates and influences us, but I love being proved wrong. What’s your take?

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