A new paradigm is emerging for how people become valuable online. I’ll call it “leadership.” It started about five years ago with the introduction of blogs, and has continued more recently through the advent of social media, typified by MySpace, Facebook and Twitter. Central to this evolution has been the emergence of a new type of authority- authentic, opinionated, transparent, available, real. The culture of authority as being untouchable has given way to a new culture of authority that can be accessed, and interacted with, in real-time. The most influential people in social media, the leaders, leverage this new type of authority.
In recent years we have seen a proliferation of screens and modes of access. Many around the world who otherwise would be unconnected are now able to direct their attention from analog subjects to digital interfaces. This great surge of global Internet access now envelops us at the high end (Blackberry & iPhone) and at the low end, where any browser will do. Facebook will soon cross 200 million users world-wide, on its way to a billion in the next few years. Twitter is just getting started. Just think of the local communities around the world who will take to social media with a vengeance in the next few years, finding the same joy of expression and participation that we each felt when connecting with old school friends on Facebook for the first time.
But, as Michael Goldhaber has pointed out, “Attention, at least the kind we care about, is an intrinsically scarce resource.” This means that at some point, all of the attention that can go online, will be online. At such point, attention will enter a constant process of redistribution. One could argue that we are seeing this phase transition already in the United States, as most of the audience that will be online is online. Said another way, no new attention is being created. People are simply shifting their attention from portals like MSN, AOL, Yahoo! to social media like Facebook, WordPress and Twitter.
In social media, we are all now equally available to eachother. The cost of receiving attention has gone to zero. You have my blog address, my Facebook profile, and my Twitter account. There I am. Go ahead and consume me. Just because you can easily access my information, however, does not mean that you will. This is where the attention economy gives way to the influence economy. Determining who to pay attention to (and who to ignore) represents a new kind of social media literacy. For now, this literacy is something that we each are developing ourselves, as we muddle through friending and un-friending, following and unfollowing. This is analogous to the ad hoc discovery of web sites circa 1995, before the introduction of Netscape’s “Cool Site of the Day” and the Yahoo! directory. The advent of people discovery tools, however, is here; just note Twitter’s recently introduced “suggested users”. The amateur land grab for friends and followers of recent months will soon give way to a less populist mechanism for discovering people. Call it the emergence of “mainstream” social media.
Regardless of whether social media leadership gets established from the bottom up, or from the top down, it is useful to analyze in terms of its constituent parts of information, attention and influence:
- Information: Being able to produce unique information, on a consistent basis, is the prime mover. Most leading social media brands need to produce info on an ongoing basis, although others can leverage historical achievements to bootstrap their brand. For every Fred Wilson, Mike Arrington and John Battelle that need to spend years of daily blogging, there is Lance, Shaq and Snoop that simply need to put up a shingle to start driving traffic.
- Attention: As the financial economy teeters on insolvency, the attention economy is as healthy as ever. Every social media user shares information with the hope of getting more attention. Some are happy for attention from strangers, while others want attention only from those that they know and care about. Regardless, most bloggers, posters, sharers, tweeters all do so with the goal of receiving more attention.
- Influence: Influence can be defined as the ratio of attention one gets relative to the amount of information one produces. In this formulation, the person that gets the most attention despite being relatively quiet would have the most influence (ie reclusive novelists like Pynchon). Somebody that gets a lot of attention but spends an inordinate time producing and distributing information would be less influential.
As we move into a truly social web where the relationships between people are more important than the relationship between pages, understanding the complex interplay of information, attention and influence is necessary for identifying leaders. Why is leadership relevant to social media? Leaders attract followers, and followers consume the information that the leaders produce. This is a standard media model. In the absence of paid subscriptions, advertising will be required to subsidize the social web. Any advertiser looking to generate value will, therefore, benefit from having its brand shared by leaders. Getting these leaders to promote brands- authentically- is the hard problem that us in the business of social advertising are trying to solve.