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.

About the author

Mark Borden is a Senior Editor at Fast Company magazine. He loosely defines his beat as creativity and how individuals and companies use it to distinguish themselves in the marketplace to attract fans, customers, employees and strategic partners.