By Spencer Thompson
In the age of the internet, many new “micro-celebrities” have been created. Just head on over to the Twitter Most Followed list to see the current rankings. What does this list tell us in terms of popularity? Not much - seeing as the top people on the list are all musicians and celebrities that we already know and love. But what becomes more interesting is when we scroll down to the ~50th position, where we can start to see some unknown names. Have you ever heard of Pete Cashmore? If you aren’t in the tech industry, probably not. How about Tony Hsieh? No? Going further down the list, somebody like Gary Vaynerchuk may pop out at you - seeing as a bald guy that tweets a lot has over 800,000 followers. Impressive right?
So is this what we define as influence? Probably not, seeing as we have had influential people since the beginning of man. The bigger question, I believe, is what constitutes influence? And how do we interpret it? Realistically, there are very few influential people on this planet, but we are affected by many more. I believe this is because there are multiple forms of influence upon each person, and we will attempt to take a look at some of them here.
The effect that something or someone has on your cognitive processes. With this broad definition, simply going for a drive every morning results in you being influential to everyone around you. But of course when we talk about influence, we are talking about a person and who they are. The problem I see is that we lump everyone into the same boat. Your teacher may be influential on you, but so is Bill Gates. But do we classify them the same way?
When you go to school or work, you begin to develop a relationship with the people around you. It doesn’t matter if you have passed these people on the street a thousand times beforehand, when you are forced to interact and collaborate with them, a bond is formed. Thus, friendships are a result. I’m sure that everyone reading this still has a close group of friends from high school and university, as well as another set of friends from their workplace or social place (gym, etc…) These people that you know very well are called “strong-ties”, and have a pretty powerful effect on you. In the context of the internet, these are the people on Facebook that you add first and interact with the most.
Whether you think so or not, you have a very strong influence on these people, and vice versa. If one of them moves up the corporate “ladder”, you will begin to feel differently about them. Does someone get better marks than you, yet doesn’t seem to try as hard? This may change your behavioural patterns when it comes to school. And of course in terms of morals and ethics, our strong-link network strongly influences our decisions. But the reality is, zooming out to a 20,000 foot view, is very, very few of these people are influential on anyone but your core group. Do you have a boss that you can’t stand and you complain about to your friends? That’s fine and dandy, but almost 100% of the time that boss has no influence on your friend whatsoever. And this is where we can fall into the “small-minded” trap.
Take the example of a high school. You are a math teacher that does the best job you can every single day. You play by the rules, donate your time after school and genuinely care about your students. But your principal, the boss, is not correctly allocating your budget so that you can purchase new computers. Naturally, you are upset. And so who do you turn to in order to complain? Your co-workers, family and friends. The principal has a massive influence over your life each and every day, which is negative in this case. But once again, zooming out to the 20,000 foot view - that principal is a mere speck in planetary system. To other humans, he is not influential at all. So we can determine that he has a large personal influence, but a very poor global influence.
The next level up the ladder is people that interact with you on a very rare basis. In the case of the teacher, this may be your superintendent or maybe the minister of education in your province. Obviously, this person holds a lot more power, as he or she is responsible for whole batches of school districts. Accordingly, no matter what school you go to in the region, everyone has heard of this person and follows their decisions. Every time they pass a new bill in parliament, you think that it is a massive influence in the world. What if a new bill is proposed to add five minutes to the school day. Does this influence you? Of course! You may join a protest, sign a petition or send an email to the minister himself. This person, while not being a strong-link, is a very powerful industry-link.
The problem with this level of influence is that people believe these people are mini-celebrities. In the land of the technology world, bloggers like Michael Arrington have a lot of influence. But in reality, 99.99% of the world has no clue who Michael Arrington is, and don’t care to know. They don’t care that Yuri Milnar is giving every Y-Combinator team 150k, or that Quora is growing like a weed. In fact, all of that is like space language. But if you are in the technology industry, the Ontario minister of education means nothing to you whatsoever. And the dentists association? They have an association? you might ask. You see, the issue with the internet is that we get trapped in our “worlds” rather than realizing that industry-influence is very limited. Sometimes we need to step back and look at the broader picture.
Weak-Link Influences (Global Power)
The last category of influence is the furthest away from you personally. Going back to the teachers example, a person of global influence may be Michelle Rhee. Is she involved in education? Yes - she is trying to do many great things. Does she influence your career? Probably, seeing as if you are a good teacher you will stand by her philosophies. Do you know her personally? Not even close. But the thing is, not many people do, but many know who she is. Her influence not only extends into the education industry, but also technology, finance, health-care, sports, entertainment, etc… Why? Due to the national media coverage she has gotten (ex. Oprah) and the success of Waiting For Superman - she has transcended her industry.
She is one example of somebody who is influential across the three level. Her actions can determine changes in your day-to-day activities, effect your industry due to changes made and globally influence education leaders. Other examples of global powers can include people like: Bill Gates & Steve Jobs in technology, Michael Jordan & Tiger Woods in sports, Barbara Walters & Oprah Winfrey in media, etc, etc… These are people that have not only reached the top of their industry, but have transcended into all other industries. When this happens, true influence is reached.
World-class individuals are very rare indeed, but very important in the global sphere. They are heavily scrutinized and always in the limelight. Every action is watched and analyzed closely (usually by non-influential people). Books are written about them, websites dedicated to them. All of these are measures of global influence.
Are these people influential to you? Like we mentioned before, probably on some level. They are definitely nowhere near as influential as your strong-link connections, but they still affect how you think and act. The balance is remembering that usually the people that affect you the most are the people that have the least amount of influence. It’s a tough balance, but I believe that we need to learn to balance all three levels in order to continue along the path we need to.