Popularity, Ego, and Influence - What Is the Influence Project?

Influence Project

In roughly 24 hours, nearly 6,000 people have registered to participate in an experiment we started called The Influence Project. It's been written about by TechCrunch, The Huffington Post, The New York Times, and a score of personal blogs. While it hasn’t taken off the way as quickly as the David After Dentist or Yosemitebear Mountain Giant Rainbow videos, it's off to a good enough start to bust our servers (briefly). But like anything that gains traction on the Web, the reactions have been mixed, ranging from the vitriolic to the pretty damn amusing.

One side effect of instant popularity is that most people are unaware of the evolution of this idea, and how the thing actually works. The Influence Project is a byproduct of a story I wrote in the May issue of Fast Company about the ad and marketing shop Mekanism. Mekanism told me they could make just about anything go viral. So I asked them to create a viral marketing campaign for Fast Company (they were not paid for this, but did it because it sounded like fun). In return, I would document the process and see if they could deliver. Mekanism came back with pitches ranging from a Twittering Business Jesus who responds to prayers from companies in distress, to a jingoistic campaign titled Fuck China (we passed on both, but you can still see the full brief). Instead, we settled on an idea called The Cover Project—so named because everyone who participates would get their photo in a story that might hit the cover of a fall Fast Company issue. We’ve changed the name since then, because the editorial story I wanted to pursue, the story that is constantly evolving and morphing, is the story of influence and influencers and how they are employed to both spread or kill ideas on the Internet. And voila—The Influence Project.

We've created a platform where anyone can see what happens to his or her social network when people are asked to take an action. The scoring is based partly on how many people click on the link to your profile, and partly on a bonus awarded to people who get others inside their network to sign up and take part. (Someone with 100,000 followers who only gets 100 people to join the project is less influential than someone with 150 followers who gets 100 people to join.) We didn’t give guidance on how people should pursue their influence goals. Some people may engage in deception to get others to click on their link (hello 4Chan), some may use tactics that feel like spam to boost their results (hello, SEO consultants). Some may want to use charity as a lever to push engagement—go ahead, we won't stop you. Is that inappropriate? Is that unfair? Is that a popularity contest? Maybe. But it's also reflective of behavior that happens on the Internet every day.

The project is an experiment, one that should inform us and be enjoyable for participants. It is not being paid for by a sponsor—although we'd be thrilled to have one. Your email address will not be sold to anyone. It is an editorial investigation.

Yes, we hope to be able to name the most influential person online in our November issue. But that issue will do much more, looking at influence from all kinds of different perspectives. And along the way, I'll be writing daily on the subject of influence—occasionally focusing on the project, but mostly writing about interesting people I learn about along the way, and how they create and wield their own online influence. Which brings me back to the main point of our project: It's a wild, unwieldy, imperfect, and hopefully fun way to take a look at the wild, unwieldy, imperfect and certainly fun world of social media.

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  • Sha Speaks

    I am a part of the Influence Project and have had fun with it as well. In about three days or so my numbers have climbed and now its kind of peaked so Im working overtime in Spreading the influence. I have a problem now...Someone I influenced (Queens Only) currently rank in 501 out of 27,000 and I bought them in meaning they signed up under my number given to me by your project site. Why don''t I see them reflected in my tier. That means that I am not receiving the points that I should from this group as we have been working overtime getting the word out. Fair is fair and I am enjoying this project and want to know how this problem can be rectified. Thank you.

  • Connie F. Williams

    I am a participant in this project and I love it. I want to be on that cover in November. I agree with your first poster Mark on utilizing this viral project to "promote" causes for lack of a better way of saying it. I just started the project a day ago and my numbers are climbing..not as fast as I would like them but its working. I want to use this project to let people know I exist on the net...selfserving..yes...but its the truth. The only problem I have is my picture does not show when my name comes up and I hope they fix that. I want to contribute a piece of me to this project and am happy to be a part of it. I think its awesome and keep it coming...NOW LET ME GO SEE WHO I CAN INFLUENCE.

  • Ed Cohen

    Hey Mark

    Regardless of what some people might this, this project has turned into something incredible. We have been able to harness the energies and support of people from around the world for Prashanth, an abused and abandoned little boy left in an overcrowded orphanage in India. It would be great for you to start writing about some the featured causes on the Influence Project...show the wonder of social media and how it can positively influence, please.

    We certainly hope that rather than the project being hijacked by some, it is used to make miracles happen!

    For us it is an abused and abandoned little boy in India who was left in an overcrowded orphanage and is too poor to have a computer. Tonight when you put your head to your pillow there are 138 M children in the world without. They won’t sleep. If they sleep, they won’t dream of a home. They don’t remember having one…Most grow up on the streets becoming beggars, drug addicts, prostitutes, or worse. Many do not survive to their 18th birthday.

    Prashanth was born in a small village in south India. A precocious child, he often got in trouble. Believing that the soul resides in the belly, the religious figure he traced a circle around Prashanth’s belly button, then went up and down his skin creating horizontal and vertical lines with a fire hot iron. Prashanth, only 4 at the time, grabbed for the hot iron burning his first 2 fingers. This was meant to kill the demonic behavior.

    Prashanth’s father died, his mother remarried; her new husband refused to raise him. He went to live with his Grandmother. Too feeble and poor to take care of him, she sent him to live with his Aunt, who was poor and raising her own children. He did not go to school; he wandered the streets, seldom returning even at night until he ended up in an abandoned in an orphanage.

    Having been burned and not treated his fingers healed fused, rendering them unusable. We took him to see a surgeon at Apollo Hospital and he invited he kindly offered his services. During the two-hour surgery, the scars were removed, new skin grafted, and his fingers straightened by placing a pin in one and a splint on the other. Due to a lack of sanitation at the orphanage, Prashanth stayed with us for the next six weeks. The day came when the doctor removed the pin and splint. He asked Prashanth to move his fingers. Slowly, tentatively he wiggled them; he smiled and said, “Thank you for my fingers.”

    Prashanth’s story can expand awareness and concern for the millions of children who will not have a home to go to today or any day in the near future.

    Prashanth's URL: http://fcinf.com/v/appe

    Peace and blessing from Ed Cohen and Priscilla Nelson

  • Lauren Blumenthal

    I need additional information. What are the benefits of this project? What are the benefits to me to have this information at hand.

  • Thomas Fox

    I'm fascinated by this, and excited to see the outcome.

    One question: How does one insert the bio information?

  • Nadia Giordana

    I've been unable to access for close to 24 hours, my "sphere of infuence" has tried and likely lost interest. Still, this sounds like an interesting project if it gets back up and running.

  • Barbara Giamanco

    It's a great idea, but your website is terrible. I cannot even get signed up. If the team that created this idea is so sharp, how come the web presence isn't better? And, what's the point of writing about the project, putting it out there for people to get involved in, and then they can't even register? Silly.

  • J. Jeffryes

    Nice attempt to backpedal. I think you'd be better served in admitting this is a lame attempt at black-hat SEO that has very little to do with influence.

    Never mind the abysmally bad Flash interface that's so slow it's unusable.

  • Mark Borden

    Hey Josh

    I don't see the backpedal, but I doubt there's much I can do to change your mind. Thanks for reading and commenting...mark

  • Ellen Moore

    HI Mark,

    I love the idea! I'm the COO of Carton Donofrio Partners - an ad agency in Baltimore. I read the Mekanism claim and your challenge in the print edition and wondered if I'd remember to follow the story as it interested me. So on the one hand, thanks for pushing it into my inbox so I'd remember. On the other; however, few ideas have the luxury of a publication such as FC to supercharge them out the door. Do you think this will actually be a fair experiment? I don't ask that antagonistically, but rather out of curiosity. All experiments have to isolate as many variables as possible, and I'm curious how you'll isolate the "FC Supercharge" variable.

    Will follow with interest,
    Ellen Moore

  • Mark Borden

    Hi Ellen

    Fair is always tough and I agree that Fast Company can often apply a bit of supercharge. That said, if you look at some of the criticism that's been thrown at this project, (this piece lays it out pretty well, though I admit it has a favorable ending: http://bit.ly/93WLl1), the supercharge can cut both ways. Let's stay in touch and see how it goes...mb

  • Paul Lombard

    Mark - an exciting project! I believe the transforming thought about influnece is not that you do it TO an entity, but rather that you are able to do it WITH or in partnership with that entity. I look forward to the following the report.

  • Mark Borden

    Hey Paul

    I totally agree. Collaboration with the right partners takes one plus one and somehow gets ∏. Thanks for reading...mb

  • IssamarGinzberg

    simple. this project shows the "sheeple" how they have been duped until now- and that their "social media guru" doesn't understand social media themselves.

    Issamar Ginzberg

  • Bob Jacobson

    ...And some may use PR and web marketing firms to assist them since the stakes are quite high for the winner(s): publicity in Fast Company (usually, that would take an agent or an extremely appealing story) and a reputation as a star-maker.

    I think it's an interesting project -- a step up from putting postcards on helium balloons to discover whose travels the farthest -- but because it's artificial, not exactly indicative of what happens "for real."

    It would be more informative to study an actual viral campaign, see how it's conceived, executed, and goes down with the participants. Of course, that's been done so many times (perhaps once at least for each such campaign that's been conducted, for the client's sake at least) it's no longer an interesting story.

    So throw in a celebrity or two to juice the action and at least you have experiences indicative of reality to take away. Oh, that's been done, too? It seems to me that Seth Godin has traversed this terrain before and while much of what his books and lectures have revealed has even earlier roots in old-hat public relations and agentry, at least he brings order to his recountings, lessons that can be learned and acted on.

    All that being said, it's nice of FC to walk its talk, help us to understand how stories catch your editors' attention and show up in your pages and on your website. Open your kimono, as the pundits say. Herd the cats. Fly it up the flagpole and see how it waves.