05 April 2007

Hidden influencers

Two months ago, The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) online carried an article called ‘The Wizards of Buzz’ highlighting the popularity of social news sites, which were further popularising specific news stories and influencing people. Well, perhaps, not people in India, at least not in a major way, but definitely influencing the decisions of people in the United States. The article, written by Jamin Warren and John Jurgensen, said:

“A new generation of hidden influencers is taking root online, fueled by a growing love affair among Web sites with letting users vote on their favorite submissions. These sites are the next wave in the social-networking craze -- popularized by MySpace and Facebook. Digg is one of the most prominent of these sites, which are variously labeled social bookmarking or social news. Others include Reddit.com (recently purchased by Condé Nast), Del.icio.us (bought by Yahoo), Newsvine.com and StumbleUpon.com. Netscape relaunched last June with a similar format.”

How does this concept of social news and social networking work? Warren and Jorgensen from the same WSJ article explain:

“Most sites are based on a voting model. Members look around the Web for interesting items, such as video clips, blog entries or news articles. A member then writes a catchy description and posts it, along with a link to the material, on the site, in hopes that other members find it just as interesting and show their approval with an electronic thumbs-up vote. Items that receive enough votes rise in the rankings and appear on the front page, which can be seen by hundreds of thousands of people. When an item is submitted by a popular or influential member -- one whose postings are closely followed by fellow members -- it can have a much better shot at making the front page.”

Who are these influencers behind this new craze? Some of them we may never know as they go by their assumed Internet names, but the WSJ article mentions several, including Cliff Worthington (a 45-year-old English teacher in Osaka, Japan), Smaran Dayal (an 18-year-old student in Pune, India), Diane Put (a nutritionist in California, USA), Adam Fuhrer (a 12-year-old student in Toronto, Canada), Henry Wang (a 17-year-old student in Illinois, USA), among hundreds of others. There’s a small list of such influencers at the end of the WSJ article. Perhaps there are thousands more. Considering the fact that there are hundreds of millions of Internet users, the influencing power of these few thousand hidden influencers is substantial.

Just how substantial is their influence? It may be difficult to quantify their influence in pure numbers or money value, but the WSJ article gives us an indication of the extent to which it is applied:

“The opinions of these key users have implications for advertisers shelling out money for Internet ads, trend watchers trying to understand what’s cool among young people, and companies whose products or services get plucked for notice. It’s even sparking a new form of payola, as marketers try to buy votes.”

Adding further:

“Payola schemes depend on the voting system these sites employ. Some marketing companies promise clients they can get a client front-page exposure on Digg or one of the other social-bookmarking sites in exchange for a fee, according to marketers. To deliver on that promise, the company then recruits members at the site, offering to pay them for thumbs-up votes on the posting that links to the client. If enough paid-off members all vote for that posting, it could theoretically push the client’s link onto the front, where it receives wide exposure.”

There’s more, of course. So, why not read the whole WSJ article and find out for yourself what’s going on? You can find it all here.

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