Friday, October 28

Rediscovering Influence: The Butterfly Effect

A few months ago, I was introduced to one of my favorite websites ever. It's a site loaded with ideas.

It represents the best of what the Internet can do. It brings people together — those with great ideas and those who want to see great ideas succeed. They are great ideas. Not all of them; enough of them.

In fact, I reviewed it on Liquid [Hip]. And while Kickstarter wasn't rated because we ran the review as a Good Will pick, I would have rated it a perfect 10. I've only ever done that one other time since we started.

It seems to me that Kickstarter represents the best of what the Internet can do. Almost every day, someone pitches an idea that influences and inspires others to share their story, dream, and project. The artists who submit their side projects are influential, even those who have no presence on the Internet (today).

So are the people who support them. In fact, the people who support these artists are more influential than they will ever know. The project they help fund today can launch a company, a career, a revolution.

The truth is we just don't know. A small change at one place in a nonlinear system can result in large differences at a later state. It's called the butterfly effect, and taken from a greater chaos theory.

The Quest For Tangible Online Influence. 

In much the same way, DonorsChoose is like Kickstarter. It brings people together too.

In this case, teachers submit requests based on the needs of their students. Supporters donate funds, which are then used to purchase the necessary supplies.

One recent example was a teacher who had an idea that he could do a better job teaching his students science and how to grow food if only they could test the soil for optimal growth. Once they had the soil test kits, they would have a better understanding of how to grow plants like tomatoes and squash.

The project was funded. And while there is no way to really know, any number of those students might translate what they learn from this project into lifelong skill sets, inspiring them to become teachers, scientists, agricultural engineers, or maybe something that we can't imagine today — professions that could make their communities, states, or even the world a better place to live.

The Distraction Of Online Vanity. 

The nemesis of both projects, it seems, strikes in the opposite direction. Rajesh Setty wrote a brilliant piece, called 7 Reasons For The Rise Of Mediocrity (hat tip: Valeria Maltoni). In it, he shares how many people obtain attention without any foundation of ability, accomplishment, or credibility.

It seems to me that he is right, even if I might temper my assessment because I believe insight can come from even the least likely of places. But where I agree with Setty is that I'm no longer convinced enough people are seeking insight. They are seeking mediocrity, wrapped in vanity, a distraction.

And if there is any service that delivers this distraction in an overdosed-sized serving, it has to be Klout. I am not going to dwell on Klout too long. Danny Brown has covered recent events already — from the recent embarrassment of people who believed the original scoring system was something more than make believe to one of the greatest abuses of privacy on the Internet.

I tend to take a broader brush approach to the topic, usually filed under perception or popularity. And while neither of those articles are directly about Klout, they may as well be. The entirety and enormity of the system proposed by that company aims to rob people of real influence by catering to their vanity.

As much as I would like to laugh about it, casting Joe Fernandez as Sylvester McMonkey McBean (and maybe I will again some other day), Klout is becoming dangerous. For every article that laughs at it, there are five more than suggest Klout for resumes (Adweek),  Klout for perks and power (Business Grow), and Klout for university grades (Wall Street Journal, about 3 minutes into the video). 

Yes, Scott Galloway, clinical professor of marketing at New York University, threatens students with public humiliation if their Klout scores falter. He says high Klout scores make students winners. In reality, it asks them to disconnect from people that it considers losers, making them the biggest losers of all and everything Andrew Keen said about the future of social media right on the money.

What We Need To Ask About Influence. 

In determining influence in terms of measurable action, we have to ask ourselves whether the action of inventing, investing, donating, creating, inspiring, or producing goes further than the action of liking, sharing, retweeting, and investing time in the primping of a vanity score for a hand full of hair gel.

And then we have to ask ourselves if pursuing those scores does anything beyond distracting us from activities that might do or might produce a tangible outcome — a small change that leads to large differences in a later state. Or, to use the classic theoretical example, we would have to know that a butterfly flapping its wings several weeks ago didn't in fact form a hurricane today, or not. Do something.
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