The Metrics of You: Can We Really Measure Social Influence?

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Generations of social scientists have measured “social influence”—often in connection with studies of public health and education in underserved communities.  Now this term is being bandied about by social media mavens.  With new sites like Klout and Peerindex, along with the older Twitalyzer and a host of other metrics measurement tools, we’re told that each of us can be represented by a number. That number supposedly tells just how many people we reach and whose decisions we influence.  Online, that is.

I’m sure these tools are useful for those who embrace social media as a full-time pursuit, whether as part of their jobs or for personal connectivity, or both.  But I’m a skeptic.  What kind of scores are you going to get for Barack Obama, who’s not even allowed to use a Blackberry? What about Warren Buffet? Recently International Business Times came up with  its list of the Most Influential Women in the world. There are some influencers on the list whom I’m sure have high scores—Lady Gaga and Oprah being two of them (although how much of their own typing on social media they actually do is arguable). But topping the list is Michelle Obama, who presumably is under the same Secret Service orders as her husband to stay off the internet. Also on there: German Chancellor Angela Merkel, CEO of Pepsico Indra Nooyi, and Burmese Democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi.  These women are changing the world, but probably score pretty low as influencers on social media.

To argue with myself a moment–blogger’s perogative!–major pro-democracy movements such as the one Suu Kyi has led have taken to social media as an agent of change.  Arguably even if she doesn’t register a number on social media (she’s spent a large part of her life imprisoned), her followers may be there. Arguing back to myself, no they aren’t. Burma’s population isn’t as well-educated as their pro-democracy counterparts in Egypt.  Out 60 million citizens, only about 400,000 use the internet (Foreign Policy Association).  So they’re being influenced in other ways not measurable through social media metrics.

My point is these personal metrics numbers are just getting started.  I’m not saying in certain instances they aren’t useful as part of a larger scheme of metrics. But right now I think they’re a long way from measuring true influence.  So, for those who remember The Prisoner TV series (oldsters, you know who you are), I feel confident in shouting “I am not a number!”

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