Uncovering the structure of influence and social opinion

By Ross Dawson on February 10, 2007 | Permalink

An article in the Wall Street Journal titled The Wizards of Buzz zooms in on a group of people much discussed by the tech crowd over the last year, but who have not visible in the mainstream media before now. They are the people who submit stories to the social news sites. The article includes a nice sidebar describing the most prominent social news sites: Digg, Reddit, StumbleUpon, Del.icio.us, Newsvine, and Netscape. These sites create what I call “social opinion” (as distinct from the traditional approach of status-based opinion). Each of these sites depends on people submitting what they think are the most interesting news items. Then the community at large votes on these suggestions, with the links getting the most votes going to the front page, being seen by thousands or even millions of people, and sometimes creating overnight stars. The main focus up until now has been the ‘You’ named by Time magazine as the person of the year – that is the many who vote on the stories. Yet there is only a fairly small pool of people who submit stories.
The Wall Street Journal did its own analysis of who was submitting stories on the sites, and came up with some interesting insights, including the startling fact that on Digg, 30 people (from 900,000 registered users) are responsible for one third of stories that made the front page of the site. The article names 20 of the most active and influential people who are submitting to social news sites, putting in the limelight people who are working hard for no pay, scouring the web for interesting stories, and being the first to submit them for a potential 15 seconds of fame.
Of course, influential people of all stripes can be wooed with attention, invitations, presents, money, and other nice things. Netscape, in a bid to attract some of these influencers, offered $1,000 a month to some of the top submitters on Digg to get them to switch to Netscape. No doubt PR people are already keenly courting these influencers. This research and article has helped to uncover the structure of influence in a world driven increasingly by social opinion rather than status-based opinion. What interests me in particular is how the structure of these influence networks will evolve – we are absolutely in a transition phase, and the way social opinion is formed will quickly change. Michael Arrington calls it a “crazy ecosystem”. Jason Kaneshiro focuses on the potential for these influencers to be paid – they are creating value, including being central to the very high valuations of some of these sites, so they should be rewarded. The question is, in what form does that reward come? Being written about in the Wall Street Journal is a strong reward in itself, for many. And if they are paid, who pays them, and is it overt or covert? This will be a fascinating space to follow.

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