The subject of 'influence', and in particular, 'online influence', has undergone quite a bit of debate in recent years. It's fair to say that there haven't been any standards for influence that have swept companies or institutions off their feet. Tech platforms like Klout, Kred and PeerIndex have respectably undertaken new approaches for measuring online influence, while a host of universities and independent entities have been doing research around the composition of offline influence. Personally, I've always looked at the two as interlinked.
The study of neural networks brings to light a new set of possibilities concerning the attributes of offline and online behavior. I've radically oversimplified what this could mean here, but suffice to say I think the general premise should be that influence is the measurement of resonance and impact between ideas, to which people ('influencers') serve as catalysts for co-creation or reinvention, rather than mere 'experts to follow'. People, in essence, become cognitive authorities, and take on adaptive roles. These dynamics reflect an acute mix of biochemistry, neuroscience and social epistemology.
Cognitive authority rests on the notion that "people construct knowledge in two different ways: based on their first-hand experience or on what they have learned second-hand from others. What people learn first-hand depends on the stock of ideas they bring to the interpretation and understanding of their encounters with the world. People primarily depend on others for ideas as well as for information outside the range of direct experience. Much of what they think of the world is what they have gained second-hand." (cited from Wikipedia)
Patrick Wilson's epistemological approach can be explored further in a number of intriguing white papers, which of course predate the social web. This book of his, in my opinion, encapsulates the power of cognitive authority; it examines the many ways we seem to be overlooking the value of networked information streams in our current technological, data and media practices, and how we tend to base influence on more superficial variables such as wealth, social status, professional status and marketing reach.
What we are challenged with at present does not do away with the notion that you can follow influential people and ideas, but rather that influence would become a contextual basis through which information flows.
This is becoming more and more apparent in my own work, especially as technologies have become more 'personalized', information has become more automated, and operating context, overall, is more elusive than ever.
Here are some precepts to think about:
* Intelligence versus Reputation
Identities are easily constructed and manipulated per superficial attributes (career, title, early adoption, etc.) when in actuality they should be more about what one does with or within a domain, across domains and the kinds of experimental learning someone is capable of.
* Quality of Information Flow
Opinions are abundant, as we know. How opinions relate to experience and ongoing conversations, as well as a 'factual' basis for understanding information is a whole other matter. We have a lot of work to do in this regard. Much of it has to do with ingrained behaviors with respect to media consumption and what we can do to 'unlearn' them.
* Concentration of Information Scrutiny & Serendipity
'Facts', historical accounts and empirical evidence (scientific or 'other') are also under constant revision, to which contextual foundation and consensus are consistently challenged. If knowledge can be networked, then we have a responsibility to (re)distribute or federate that knowledge as openly as we can, such that we can question more and discover more of the 'unknown unknowns'.
* The Nature of Intentionality
Our intentions -- what amount to a defined sense of social responsibility -- are another major factor in all of this; our contributions to society and the (co)creation of value and value alignment are critical in determining the kind of influences and impacts we want to have in world that often times feels completely amoral, unethical and operationally rudderless.
* Scale at the Speed of Thoughtful Interaction
If the central challenge is to make information 'easier and more digestible' then we must consider the costs in making/taking shortcuts. We cannot sacrifice critical thought for brevity. We cannot supersede personal and collective growth for the pursuit of transaction. We cannot assume that information -- like human and natural resources -- is in endless supply, when economic scarcity regulates these same systems. Hopefully that will change soon. In the meantime, we need to be equally smart about who we are and what we want, and act accordingly.