by Karin Frick

‘Knowledge is power’ was one of the pillars of the hierarchical world of the industrial society. Knowledge was scarce, knowledge was expensive, thus knowledge had a high status, socially and economically.

Things have changed in the networked world of the knowledge society. Knowledge is abundant, knowledge is accessible to everyone and knowledge is cheap. Thus, knowledge by itself does not make you powerful – it does so only if you can use it to change something. So today ‘Influence is power’. Measurement of this influence is the challenge for GDI’s Global Thought Leader studies.

What is influence?

Influence is the ability to drive action, to change how someone or something develops, behaves or thinks. If others follow what you do or say, that’s influence. If people respond to something you share on social media, that’s influence.
As influence becomes visible in actions and reactions, it can be measured. All other things being equal, your influence score will be higher if you
– can influence more people
– can induce changes in opinions
– can induce not only opinion changes, but corresponding actions

The (dwindling) influence of elites

Once upon a time, the key influencers were small by number and huge by power: the big players of media, politics and industry  –  organisations and individuals – were designers and masters of the conversation. This old influence hierarchy has been shattered, replaced by a new mosaic of influence in which social media plays a growing role.
The mental space between ruling elites and people is larger than ever. Robert Kaplan observed in his studies that elites underestimate the fact that they are systematically losing power and control.

Communication company Edelman has the numbers (and a picture) of this trend. For the more than 33,000 respondents to its 2016 Trust Barometer, ‘a person like yourself’ is as credible as an academic expert (64%) and much more credible than a CEO (49%), an NGO representative (48%), a board of directors (44%) or a government official (35%). So peer voices today are more influential than the opinion of traditional authority figures.

Inverted Trust Triangle by Edelman

‘As a result,’ Edelman concludes, ‘we have a new pyramid of influence, where the broader population has more influence than those with authority, creating a real challenge for those in positions of power and authority, who need to find new ways of engaging and influencing opinion.’

The (growing) influence of social environment
Social influence, and more specifically network impact, has a huge effect on us in many spheres – from the partners we choose and the careers we develop, through to the goods and services we purchase and the politicians we vote for. As Alex Pentland puts it: ‘Face-to-face social exposure features explain individual political opinions on election day better than self-reported social ties or the views of people with whom they had political discussions. The best predictor of subject attitudes was not their friends, parents or political discussants, but rather the attitudes of peers who shared the same physical environment.’ Of course, most of these influences happen unconsciously: the influencer as well as the influenced are just telling stories, sharing opinions and sometimes they make up their minds. In fact, often they do not know if they are influencing someone or if they are being influenced. They just communicate.

The influence of extremists

Some people in your physical and/or social environment try to influence very consciously. You can call them activists – although in some cases extremists would be a better description. Just like the previous elite (fought with the ‘We are the 99%’ slogan of the Occupy movement), these activists are a very small slice of society, no more than 1%.

At least, that’s what the 90-9-1 rule of participation inequality in social media and online communities tells us: in most online communities, 90% of users are lurkers who never contribute, 9% of users contribute a little and 1% of users account for almost all the action. In some online communities, participation is much more unevenly distributed – for example, on Wikipedia. According to Wikipedia’s ‘about’ page , it has less than 70,000 active contributors, about 0.02% of the 374 million unique visitors worldwide (September 2015). Wikipedia’s most active 1,000 people – 0.0003% of its users – contribute about two thirds of the site’s edits. So here it is not 90-9-1 rule, but a 99.98-0.02-0.0003 rule.

Of course, that’s not a problem per se; sometimes it’s even the solution. Progress is not a matter of majorities, as Nassim Taleb says: ‘Had science operated by majority consensus, we would be still stuck in the Middle Ages and Einstein would have ended as he started, a patent clerk with fruitless side hobbies.’ The same is true for every kind of political activism: at only very small periods of time close to the peak of a revolutionary movement will a majority of the population actively put an effort into politics in general or into a special topic. But that’s what activists do and it can change the whole system.

Like every systemic change, this can be (or become) a problem. Taleb: ‘For the banning of some books, or the blacklisting of some people, all it takes is a few (motivated) activists.’ Minorities can dictate how a society works.

From public intellectuals to network intellectuals

The inversion of influence noted above – and the related gap between those in authority and those with influence – requires a new model of leadership to bridge the divide. One of the cornerstones of this model is the transition from the public intellectual to the network intellectual.

The old-school public intellectuals were independent minds, thinking and writing for themselves, and using books and other media to spread their insights. The channels were not part of the production process, but of the distribution – ideas emerge more or less fully formed from inside the heads of individuals.
Network intellectuals are different. They build the social and intellectual communities that bring them fame. Within those communities, they help develop new social and institutional ties and, with them, new ideas and new turns of phrase. Media is still used to spread ideas, but more so for the development process: ideas may still start in one individual head, but they are formed within the network. Network building and reputation building are two sides of the same coin.

How to measure influence in a network

In contrast to the power of traditional authorities, such as states and corporations, the growing power and dynamics of networks are mostly invisible. Even if all actions and reactions within a network could be seen, it’s not easy to connect a given action to a special influence or influencer.

It’s tempting to use some easily measurable quantities as an influence meter. But the number of followers of a social media account is a very weak indicator of the influence of this account in general or in relation to certain topics.

A more suitable concept for the measurement of influence is connected with location, as suggested by Valdis Krebs: ‘In real estate, location is determined by geography – your physical location. In social networks, location is determined by your connections and the connections of those around you – your virtual location.’

Two social network measures, Betweenness and Closeness, are particularly indicative of a node’s advantageous or constrained location in a network. The indicator most frequently used in our GDI Thought Leader studies is called betweenness centrality: betweenness measures the control a node has over the flows of a network – how often is this node on the path between other nodes? Closeness measures how easily a node can access what is available via the network – how quickly can this node reach all others in the network? A combination – where a node has easy access to others and also controls the access of other nodes in the network – reveals high informal power.