Philip Sheldrake: The complexity of influence is a challenge – and an opportunity

If media is interesting because it facilitates communication, whether that communication is mediated or disintermediated, then communication is most interesting when it facilitates influence.

You have been influenced when you think something you wouldn’t otherwise have thought, or do something you wouldn’t otherwise have done. Simple as, although you wouldn’t think it now that influence is the hot word.

The capacity to change hearts, minds and deeds is considered the mark of the great communicator, the compelling personality, the charismatic politician, and ultimately no one wants to communicate without influence; that wouldn’t be a good use of the communicator’s time and energy, or indeed that of those on the receiving end.

The focus on making sure you’re influenced back is vital too. Individuals (and organisations) that best absorb the zeitgeist are heuristically more able to respond in ways their audiences (stakeholders) might well appreciate.

Influence is complex, and I mean that in the full “complexity science” sense of the word. Complexity is the phenomena that emerge from a collection of interacting objects. The interacting objects could be molecules of air and the phenomenon the weather. It could be vehicles and the phenomenon the traffic.

Human objects could be the population of Cairo, the 99%, sports fans in a sports stadium, people who like photos of cats, your customers, or your employees; in fact, any collection of people interacting with each other, influencing each other.

A characteristic of complexity is that studying the individual rarely betrays anything about the phenomena. You can’t learn much about the termite mound by studying the individual termite, or the traffic jam by studying the car.

Think about it. Take almost any of your recent thoughts or actions and try and decipher how in fact that thought or action came to be; what did you take into account, consciously and unconsciously, over what timescale? You soon begin to appreciate that your thoughts and actions are outputs of a complex system. You are reconciling multiple inputs, multiple influences.

Complexity science remains a work in progress, and related fields include systems theory, chaos theory, network science, and more specifically to our focus here, subsets of network science called social network analysis and link analysis.

Companies such as KloutPeerIndex and PeopleBrowsr all pursue social network analysis and link analysis of social media, arriving at a purported score of an individual’s influence – Klout, PI score and Kred respectively. Klout claims to be “the standard for influence”, PeerIndex tempts you with “own your own influence”, and PeopleBrowsr claims to “assemble the collective intelligence, identify its most influential people, and make them accessible for analysis and engagement.”

In my opinion, complexity and network science will continue to unearth insights of important commercial and societal value, but I’m considerably less enamoured about seeming to translate today’s analytical capabilities into some kind of a score of an individual’s influence. Right now, we have no scalable facility to ascertain or infer who or what caused someone to change their mind or behaviour, without falling into some kind of last-click attribution trap, so how then can we pretend to score an individual’s likelihood to exert that influence, and as if they did so with apparent Newtonian simplicity? We’ve barely even attempted to correlate proxies for influence, assuming that universal correlates even exist.

Today, these scores are apportioned in such naive fashion that your so-called influence changes following a fortnight offline. Being a Facebook “early-unadopter” myself seriously impairs any score I might be attributed. That’s not a complaint, just an observation with which the scoring companies concur.

Perhaps these companies attempt a measure at online popularity, or perhaps online authority, or more exactly the likelihood to have one’s online output shared/forwarded, but not one’s influence. Nor indeed one’s trustworthiness. PeopleBrowsr appears to be the most forthright in addressing these distinctions.

As mentioned in my book, The Business of Influence, Dr Duncan Watts isn’t beloved of marketers. He’s applied his physics degree and doctorate in theoretical and applied mechanics to the study of information contagion. In a summary of his work, a Fast Company article from February 2008, Is the Tipping Point Toast?, he is quoted as saying: “Influentials don’t govern person-to-person communication. We all do.” He continues: “If society is ready to embrace a trend, almost anyone can start one – and if it isn’t, then almost no one can.”

He isn’t beloved apparently because this is interpreted to be bad news for marketers; and I guess therefore for those companies claiming to identify these influentials to the marketers and communicators.

Overall, it seems that each of us is more influenced by the 150-odd nearest to us than by the other six or so billion combined. Influence is truly complex. And this is a considerable challenge – and opportunity – to marketing and public relations firms. So far, many have claimed to be able to identify the influentials, get to know them, and influence them. They are effectively claiming to be the influencer of influencers, a sort of influencer-in-chief if you like.

However, successful marketing and PR consultants of the 21st-century will avoid such simplistic thinking, such hyperbole, and recognise complexity and navigate it appropriately.

As for the analysis firms, long may we have the for-profit motive to explore complexity science and network science, let’s just not mis-sell its capabilities along the way.

Philip Sheldrake is the author of The Business of Influence, Wiley, 2011. He is a founding partner of Meanwhile, the venture marketers, and chairs the CIPR’s social media measurement group. He blogs at

[Originally published 15 February 2012 on The Guardian Media Network]