Tuesday, December 30

Dispelling Myths: Online Authority

In between some satire, there always seems to be some seriousness in conversations about online authority. Some social media participants want to measure this stuff, even if it for the sole purpose of vanity or perhaps selling snake oil.

There is enough of it that Jennifer Leggio lent a near perfect expose entitled "Twitter popularity does not equal business acumen" on ZDNet. The article mentions several reasons that online popularity doesn't equal much of anything. Her hope was to dissuade executives from considering popularity as a measure.

"My point that [the number of followers] should be a very, very small consideration for enterprises still stands," she concluded.

She's right. Equating online popularity to influence or so-called authority is much like equating real-life popularity to influence or authority. Online, some participants seem to forget that Jerry Seinfeld might make a fun spokesperson for Microsoft, but Bill Gates didn't place him in charge of R&D.

Eric Peterson, a web analytics expert, also poked some fun at the topic, pointing to Twinfluence, which measures velocity, social capital, and centralization. But then asks if “influence” is the best measure of success in social media. Or should people pay closer attention to something like the Twitter Ratio as a measure?

The answer is neither. Social media measures generally consider reach. And reach is, well, reach.

Influence cannot really be measured online because it suggests something that online measures do not account for — changes in behavior or actions that produce outcomes (sometimes offline). Simply having a large number of readers or friends or followers doesn't mean you have influence over them. And even if you did, that influence may be limited in scope.

There are other challenges too. As Shel Israel once pointed out: if someone has three followers, then who those followers are might make all the difference. Or, turning to one example I like to use, there are several social network owners who have less friends than other participants.

This simple fact touches on why authority cannot really be measured online either. Most professionals have friends who are experts in their field that have yet to be concerned with developing an online presence. And, if they were participants in one of a thousand social networks, they may or may not ever be popular. Yet, there is no denying their authority.

What can be measured online is reach. But sometimes, having ample reach isn't all it's cracked up to be. The wrong message communicated to tens of thousands of people instead of a few hundred is still the wrong message.


Jacob Summers on 12/30/08, 10:07 AM said...

I agree. This is good. SM is reach and reach is good - it can change things and affect opinions... if used properly. But it's like the 90s notion of having a large contact list, speed dial and a three piece suit - its just trendy for most who don't use it, nothing more.

Anonymous said...

In the case of Technorati, I always thought their "authority" numbers were simply a way to lend more authority to Technorati itself. I'm not sure how that plays out with twitter.

How about Google's page ranking system? Are there any measurements there that might translate into "authority," albeit very roughly? Seems like you're saying no.

Anonymous said...


Brilliant article. Was pointed to it on Twitter - am now following.

Completely agree that the idea of authority online is as fascinating as it is subjective.

Interested in your thoughts on the following article.




Robyn McMaster, PhD on 12/31/08, 6:18 AM said...

Thoughtful post which spells out a truism - that popularity measures simply measure popularity and nothing more. Thanks.

Rich on 12/31/08, 8:04 AM said...

Love the analogy, even if I never owned a three-piece suit. Ha!

You might be right. Technorati helped create the trend to track so-called authority based on links, but it continues to lose relevance.

Are there any measures that translate to authority? I am saying there are no social media measures that translate into authority.

Authority comes from rank, position, experience, credibility, etc. in a field. Influence comes from demonstrating an ability to change behavior or move people to produce outcomes.

Hmmm ... I think you just helped me formulate two posts for 2009. :)


I absolutely will. I took a glance last night and one of my first thoughts was to call Scoble an idiot and, since I'm not looking for popularity, explain why. (For everyone else, this comment only makes sense if you follow the link.)

You are right though. There is a certain subjectivity to the subject, but only if apply Milgram and Asch experiments into the mix.


Thank you. Coming from you that means something, even if you aren't number one on Twitter or Technorati. ;)

All my best,


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