Dr. Mariann Hardey

Digitally on.

Speaker, Writer, Academic.

Durham University Lecturer.

I do stuff for the BBC.

Feminist & lovely.

Slanguage of social media

why it's time to take the 'influence' out of sponsored social media content

November 2015

Our status is defined by how many friends in a network; how many Likes for a post; 'love' for a tweet; and where 'influence' is justified by derived by so-called clever statistics. Not their real effect. Not only has our data become vulnerable to attack, but there are also yay-sayers of metrics who, if your social media accout/s hold a high-status, will sponsor posts and offer a 'significant payout'. 

With influence in particular in a social media economy, we tend to measure the number of followers (they've got a lot, 10K+) they must be 'good' and, thus, 'influential'. This information is allowing companies to say things like 'we offer rewards based on your 'engagement'' or 'we have created new measureables to increase your income'. These are new commercial practices, but they're preceded by speculative projections.

In other words, an increase in influence produces several key questions the first being, what influence?

This is where we run into problems with potential revenue streams. Influence is generally not a measureable outcome when it's treated as a paid for transaction. This is not influence, it is classic PR. By companies, the insertion of 'engagement' is often used to distinguish and soften what amounts to a twisting of metrics to monetise user activity across social media. It's not influence; it's just a sponsored post, and it is time to stop seperating influence and engagement from clickbait, paid-for advertising, even SPAM. 

The forced distinction put in place by companies seeking to establish themselves as holding the rollerdeck of 'top influencers' actually perpetuates the inflation SPAM advertising and the opportunitistic monetisation of social media. There's a whole emerging economy involved in turning lots of followers into a revenue stream. 

So what do we need to (really) understand about user influence on social media? A key issue is metrics. One of the primary means to gather influence statistics is through media reports, and many are missing the original source data and based entirely on speculative projections. For example, the prediction for two, five, ten,fifteen years hence in the future. These projections pay lip-service to social platforms like Facebook and Instagram; Twitter and so forth in terms of their user-headcounts, but scratch beneath the surface and these include dormant and duplicate profiles, as well as other commecial indexing.

So what does influence really mean here? I'm not suggesting that we should not speculate, but - for example - the latest Oxford Internet Institute (Oii) report shows plateu in the number of new social network site (SNS) users. If this is the case for the UK, it is a trend that will be repeating worldwide. So if a new commercial organisation claims to promise new followers, who hold high influence and to turn posts into profit, I would caution quitting the day job. Or try spinning straw into gold.

Another issue is the supposed gap and need for 'specialised skills'. These appear in the press as 'how to get 1000K followers' or 'top things top influencers do'. The generic nature of this advice is entirely appropriate for a tabloid fluff piece, but also obvious to anyone already using a social app. How many HuffingtonPost or Mashable articles have you read that talk about how to get more Twitter/Instagram/Facebook followers, then casually mention the latest app, or brand, or model adopting the same method? Classic, clickbait. 

In short, we should not let the reveal of influence on social media mask it as another form of sponsored advertising.