Knowledge and Power in a Skeptical, Connected World

Who do we listen to, and why? In an age when we can find anything information quickly, what does it take to be a voice that rises above many others? What kind of power does this represent?

I read in the latest edition of the Harvard Business Review that in 2011 companies are anticipating an increased focus not just on broadly saturating target markets with facebook ads and silly “viral” videos, but on targeting “influencers” as part of their “social media” strategies. These individuals are those who shape culture and get other people on board with new trends and ways of thinking. Oprah is an influencer. Radiohead are influencers. Steve Jobs is an influencer. And a lot of random bloggers, tweeters, and other social media characters whom you’ve never heard of are influencers, and they are going to be targets of corporations because they are both cheaper and perceived (perhaps) as more authentic shills than their more famous counterparts.

You can be sure that by the time something gets annotated up to the level of an HBR trend to watch, it has already set the Internet abuzz. Further research on “measuring influence” yielded far more twenty-first-century social media examples than any others. It seems that organizations have (finally!) learned that a “social media strategy” on its own is of little benefit without real, grassroots endorsement. However, I’m more interested in what “influence” looked like in the past, before it morphed into a social media concept to be made into the next corporate buzzword, and what characteristics have stayed with perceived “influencers” since.

It seems it is a tricky thing to quantify, or even define. An article I discovered about the role of influence in economic history discusses how it is closely related to communication, but can range from impression to force in the amount of strength it implies. The other critical factors in determining long-term influence were time and space. The example given was Saint Thomas Aquinas, whose ideas were central to much medieval thought (throughout the Latin-speaking world, at least), but are relatively inconsequential today.

Influence and Power – and Money

Influence, as the article points out, is closely related to power. One of the concepts that has stayed with me since learning it in an Organizational Behaviour class years ago is that of differences in the kinds of power wielded by individuals. They can have positional power, power stemming from one’s role as, say, a manager or a parent or some other official and likely formalized figure of authority, or they can have personal power, that stemming from an individual’s character or beliefs, and likely more informal in nature. The difference between them parallels that of practical/mental authority vs. emotional authority, and the general consensus is that emotional authority goes much further in influencing others because it does not rely on a (potentially temporary) and wholly external power differential the way practical authority does.

When I consider what influence looked like in the past, it seems there was little distinction between the two types of power mentioned above. Perhaps the theory I just articulated is a fall-out from our comparatively recent fixation on merit over birth status as a rationale for power. Indeed, the ideas (and names associated with them) that have survived best throughout history to influence many others have always been backed by great financial power. Take religion, for example, which has been perpetuated by wealthy organizations that held positional power in their communities. The familiar expression about history having been written by the victors speaks to the tendency of dominant individuals, families or states to justify their authority with historical precedent. And most of the theories in every field that are still with us today were dreamed up by men with solid financial backing and the ability to spend large amounts of time reading and philosophizing. (Even Marx lived off the generosity of his bourgeois co-author, after all.)

But today that is changing — to an extent. YouTube, twitter and other media that celebrate memes and all things viral can make ordinary people famous astonishingly quickly. Such fame is often fleeting and of dubious value to society, but savvier types can sometimes parry their sudden name recognition into the more lasting sort or influence (Justin Bieber, anyone?). This can happen because influence is magnetic and self-perpetuating. Mommy bloggers who are already widely read and respected are natural candidates to push band-name diaper bags or whatever else new mothers supposedly need and want. That corporations want to latch onto such people is hardly surprising – they are merging their corporate power with bloggers’ influence in new markets, and the bloggers want to in turn increase their own profile through association (or maybe just get free products).

Self-perpetuating influence applies to companies as well. The new techie term for this concept is “network effects” – as the Economist defined it recently, “the more users [services like facebook, eBay, etc.] have, the more valuable they become, thus attracting even more users.” Whereas in the past money and power begat more of the same, today we can add hits and click-throughs to the mix.

Knowledge Brokering from Darwin to Wikipedia

The common link between these people and corporations is the way they treat knowledge. They are what the corporate world now refers to as “knowledge brokers,” a title that refers to the ability to clarify and share information with different audiences or spheres, and determine what the common elements are between, say, Paul Revere, corporate marketing, and the AIDS epidemic. Knowledge brokering (and a bit of luck) is what separates widely-read bloggers from those who write solely for themselves (whether they want to or not). It is the ability to write things that people find interesting and useful. The CIA is investing heavily in such people after a serious of incidents that demonstrated how segregated and impotent their different bodies of knowledge were.

Knowledge brokering is more than simply aggregating (though smart aggregators of information are helpful too). It is the ability to analyze and draw connections while becoming a trusted conduit of information. Knowledge brokers are perhaps an antidote to the pervasive and growing tendency to overspecialize, because they connect many specialists and their ideas with a broad audience. They are the reason we know about Darwin’s ideas. Or Jesus. Or celebrities’ latest faux-pas. Wikipedia is one giant knowledge broker that has an army of largely volunteer knowledge brokers in their own right mobilized on its behalf. That is power.

But what makes us listen to them? I suspect the key is authenticity. A lingering distaste and a keen sense for corporate marketing disguised as something else define our era. Perhaps the main difference between influencers from the past and those of today lies in the type of power they wield, as I outlined above. Personal power – like that wielded by bloggers and Oprah – is seen as more trustworthy because it lacks an agenda (whether or not this is true). Positional power is usually distrusted simply because of what it is. We only listen to Steve Jobs because we truly believe he has our best interests – in being cool and technologically savvy, regardless of the product – at heart. In contrast, many Americans discount everything Obama says because they believe he merely wants to increase his own power and unveil his secret socialist agenda on an unwilling populace.

Is this a reflection of our philosophical allegiance to free-market democracy? Is influence and power of all kinds just the ability to get people to like and trust you? If so, many corporations are going to need a lot more than “influencers” on their side.

Food for thought: How do those with positional power gain credibility? Is this knee-jerk anti-authoritarian mindset in society as prevalent as I say it is? Do people who seek to perpetuate their influence by getting behind corporations somehow weaken their own authority (i.e. do they lose their ‘cred’)? Hm.

MARGINALIA: Though I did not explicitly link to it in this post, the Economist’s Intelligent Life ran a fascinating piece recently on The Philosophical Breakfast Club, a group of four Victorian scientists who were definitely knowledge brokers (and nifty polymaths) and who were key influencers in their time. I’d recommend reading it.

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