Amazon's Former Chief Scientist on Influence, Twitter's Fake Audience, and iPad Sex Appeal

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Andreas Weigend knows how to influence people. As the former chief scientist at Amazon, Weigend helped implement a series of ingenious tools to help customers "make better decisions," from recommended purchases and one-click checkouts, to wish lists and book-interest sharing. With our recent launch of the Influence Project, we spoke with Weigend about what "influence" means on the Web. Weigend, a professor at Stanford, approached the subject philosophically, picking apart the complicated concept of influence by each attribute and nuance.

Austin Carr: Does influence exist online, and if so, who has it?

Andreas Weigend: Let's unpack this. When we talk about this, we have to figure out what it is we want to measure. This isn't about "influence" in the abstract, but influencing behavior. What does an influencer do? An influencer changes behavior, garners attention, and helps people make better decisions. One dimension of this is active versus passive. Active relates to push, and passive to pull. Here's what I mean by this. Typically, when we talk about influencers, these are very much "push" people, who spread their meaning into the world, and then the world dives back, changing its behavior. There is a very strong connotation of having a presence, of "pushing" outward, rather than being passive, with a reputation.

Here, the concept of reputation is worth disentangling from influence. You might have a great reputation when it comes to finding Chinese restaurants in New York City, but a lousy reputation when it comes to recommending doctors in Shanghai. Is this true for influence, or is influence a global variable? Do you have influence in different areas, but not in other areas? If I want to find a doctor in Shanghai, I'm not going to an influencer. I'm going to go to an expert. But are influencers and experts a dichotomy?

Take a professor of partial differential equations. He probably isn't an influencer, if you picture your gray-haired mathematics professor, who mumbles facing the blackboard. But he is an expert his field.

Could you give me some examples of influencers?

Malcolm Gladwell, I think, is a great influencer, and he can do anything: this topic this year, and another topic next year. So maybe influencers can be experts, but the influencers have to reach the bulk of the distribution, as opposed to the head of the distribution. Another influencer is Fred Wilson, of Union Square Ventures, who I'm speaking with at the Geo-Loco Conference next week. Of course, he's an influencer, and an expert too.

At the World Innovation Forum recently, you spoke about social media having an "illusion" of an audience. Could you elaborate on this concept?

For me, the "illusion" of the audience means: Why do people tweet? What is the driver of them spending time doing this? I think it's because they think they have people giving them attention, and they do everything to play with that attention. The reason Twitter works so well is that they don't have a feedback-loop, where people can realize just how little attention they're getting. I'm not saying the system was set up that way deliberately, but it's a very well setup system. People can fool themselves into believing that others are listening, which is not easy in real life. When you're talking to other people on the street and nobody is listening, after a while you sort of have to stop talking. Not so on Twitter.

Businesses today are trying to capitalize on social media. Companies more and more want Facebook fans and Twitter followers, but what kind of impact does that have? How influential can they be?

We have grown up in our pseudo-scientific society to run after numbers whenever they are present, whether they make a difference or not. Megapixel! As if the number of megapixels matter to where we are right now. In this world, we don't know what it means to have even 100 friends, let alone one thousand. All that we're left with is this fixation on numbers.

So if you define define the metrics, then you own the space. If maximizing the number of followers you have is what you want, then okay, you can do that.

Does that have an affect?

It's a poor metric; it doesn't really measure how the behavior of individuals actually changes.

What company do you feel has created the best social media strategy? Which company is most influential?

I think you know the answer: Apple. But it doesn't really have much to do with social media strategy. In terms of influence, I don't know any other company that does it better than Apple.

What advice do you have for other companies that are trying to gain influence on the Web?

The ultimate answer is: build good products and have good service. My belief is that you will always be more influential if you have a product that people will like. Ultimately it really is about attention. Think about Apple! If you're running around with the latest iPad, which by the way you can get for a third of the price here in China and they are the same, then, well, I would say, you get laid more! But it really boils down to attention. Influence is the ability to garner attention; or, from the other side, you are influenced by people who you think will increase the possibility of getting you attention.

Read more about The Influence Project, or join in the experiment.

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