The Limits Of Social Influence? Big Ben Is Influential On… Drugs

This is a guest post by Monty Munford.

Last week I found myself in a sports bar in London’s West End. I was standing next to a couple being interviewed by Middle Eastern TV news channel Al-Jazeera who were giving their (inane, alas) views on a football match between two teams from Liverpool.

This experience was far removed from the one I’d had two hours previously when in the neighbouring cinema I had attended the UK première of “The Price of Kings: Yasser Arafat”, a film about the life of the Palestinian leader.

This juxtaposition is typical of a ‘proper’ night out in London, the new melting pot of Europe, but it had happened not because of any random connection or because I liked football. The invitation for the première was down to my alleged influence on social media and had come from PeerIndex and its new PeerPerks marketing service.

Social capital indices such as PeerIndex and its U.S. rival Klout are big news nowadays and investors are very interested in how their algorithms work. PeerIndex recently received $3 million in funding from a group of angel and private equity investors to continue doing exactly this… and earlier this year Klout was alleged to have raised another $30 million in Series C funding.

But not everybody is convinced, and there have been recent examples that have discredited the algorithmic value system these indices use, one such example being @big_ben_clock on Twitter.

At the time of writing this account had more than 174,000 followers, most of whom do so ‘ironically’. That’s because the only messages it tweets involve using the word ‘BONG’ a number of times, thus mimicking the peals of the Big Ben London landmark.

But rather more damagingly for the reputation of a company that is supposed to judge reputation, its current ‘highly influential’ Klout score of 69 is risible, seemingly only to apply to the high number of followers it has.

Moreover, until recently @big_ben_clock was deemed by Klout to be influential on London, England and… drugs.

Klout had confused the knelling of bells with the devices that stoners and potheads use to addle their growing brains. Not wacky baccy, but wacky social measurement.

Sue Llewellyn is a social strategist who worked as a ‘newshound’ for the BBC and is trained as a social psychologist.

“I know influence is a very difficult, if not impossible, thing to quantify and I’m not convinced anyone’s cracked that nut yet. So far I think it’s still a game. The business of measuring influence with algorithms is in start-up mode, there’s definitely great potential but still a long way to go. The only algorithm I count is the human one and nobody’s behaviour or influence can be summed up by a simple number.. yet”, she says.

Last year Peer Index sent me a ‘Perks’ card telling me I had been ‘selected as one of 100 PeerIndex Opinion Leaders out of the 38.6 million most active Twitter users we index’. Not unlike other tech writers and ‘influencers’ that I could mention, I did get excited about that but once the ego had deflated I realised it was just a nifty piece of vanity marketing with a system that was still in beta.

PeerIndex publicly listed this PeerPerks service to the great unwashed, non-influential people last month, around the same time that Klout launched a similar service. Such approaches are reminiscent of the way Hollywood always seems to release films on the same subject at the same time, a strategy that has an eye on the competition when it should have its eye on the customer.

Consequently I received my invitation and I accepted the chance to see the Arafat film with alarming alacrity. It was something I would have wished to see, it was something I didn’t know was on and there was no other way I would have been likely to be invited… I had been correctly marketed to.

Azeem Azhar, CEO of PeerIndex naturally believes that his ranking algorithm is better than Klout because it focuses on people’s authority within specific topics. “We are in the midst of a new trend in marketing that targets and caters to the ‘citizen influencer’. With PeerPerks, we’re applying it at a grand scale by allowing marketers to dialogue with engaged users who are interested in products before the general public receive them.

“PeerPerks is targeted at people who want to benefit from the effort they’ve put into building a social profile, but who don’t necessarily care about the mechanics of social influence in detail”, he says.

He might be right. I was rewarded for being social and consequently the experience was rewarding, even if the consequent football match in the Sports Bar wasn’t. There will be hits and misses in the months to come, but I have a feeling this type of status marketing is here to stay.

However, what is more interesting to me is what will happen to my Klout and PeerIndex ‘score’ when this article is published. Very interesting indeed, it could go either way.

Meantime, in case you were wondering, big_ben_clock on Peer Index has a ranking of 34, has an influence over only 5 people, and despite being patently interested in Bongs, Peer Index has “not been able to identify any topics for Big Ben.” They really ought to try harder…