How Fast Company Confused Ego with Influence

Brass Tack Thinking - How Fast Company Confused Influence with EgoI’m a Fast Company fan. I’ve been reading for years, and they have some super smart writers and contributors on their team.

But I really think they missed the mark with The Influence Project, in a big way, and confused the idea of “influence” with ego.

To me, influence isn’t about popularity. Or even reach. It’s about the trust, authority, and presence to drive relevant actions within your community that create something of substance. That last bit is key.

I clicked this morning on a tweet from Tac Anderson, someone I like and respect a great deal. I even uploaded my picture, all that stuff that I was supposed to do, hoping that there was something really interesting that would happen at the end, something I was supposed to do. Spread the word about a charity? Encourage people to contribute thoughtful content around an idea? Something I could sink my teeth into to show how great ideas can spread?

Nope. This is in the confirmation email I got:

1) You can use any means to spread your unique link to your online network. We shortened it for you so you can share on Twitter and Facebook.

2) Your goal is to influence as many people to click on it as possible.

3) You want those people to sign up as well, since they will be spreading your influence along with their own.

4) You can track how your influence has grown, where it’s lead, and where you stand at any time on the site.

5) Your picture is going to be in the November issue of Fast Companymagazine, where we’ll reveal the most influential person online!

Seriously, Fast Company? The goal is to influence clicks to my stupid profile? And I want people to sign up to be my minions so they can “spread my influence along with their own?”

This isn’t influence. This is an ego trap and a popularity contest, pure and simple. There’s no goal other than click pandering. Already, Twitter is full of people shouting “click on my junk!” and flooding my stream and countless others with nothing more than clamoring for…well…validation.

Influence can be quiet, understated, and wielded with grace. Influence is NOT jumping up and down, begging for people to click on stuff so that they, too, can find the gatekey for their own path to feeling important in the online fishbowl.

I’m sad that there wasn’t more to this. I was expecting something different, something meaningful, something that shows that influence isn’t about numbers and eyeballs and fleeting stabs of attention in the maelstrom of 140-character snippets.

I’m disappointed. I’m sorry I clicked, and hoped for something different. And I’m frustrated that, once again, we’re going to have to discuss influence in its proper context, the work that it takes to create a truly influential platform that people can trust,  delineate the difference between people who can inspire meaningful action, and those that seek the panflash of popularity in an attention-starved space.


UPDATE: Thanks to Molly Block for pointing out this PDF that was a creative brief/pitch from Mekanism (the agency behind the experiment) to Fast Company. The third concept appears to be what they were attempting with this stunt, and while I agree that it will most certainly attention and eyeballs if that was their aim, I still have a fundamental problem with the way they’re treating the concept of “influence”. There were probably better ways to achieve the same aim without implying that influence was part of the equation. Just call a spade a viral contest stunt spade and be done with it.

  • athirdmind

    THIS actually made me Laugh Out Loud. And reply to let you know THAT was funny ;-) ))

  • tdhurst

    Anyone who took this seriously should be banned from the internet.

  • tdhurst

    Anyone who took this seriously should be banned from the internet.

  • Joshua

    'Gaming the system' is reality for just about everything, but the problem is not in the gaming. The problem is in the (over) value we put on the metrics.

    Some use science/math to explain social interaction using retweets and clicks as variables, but we're far more unpredictable and emotionally-driven than we'd like to admit.

    Ducttape John makes a good point here:

  • ricklondon

    Influence both online and off can be a bit of a joke. Last year BP was one of the most influencial firms on the planet. Today it's executive board perhaps could get an entry job with Al Quieda. Same with Enron, MCI and the list goes on. The people who influence me are not online, they are in my life. The people I influence are usually the same ones who influence me (real life). Social networking is interesting fun, stressful, competitive, silly, high-schoolish, a learning experience, and much more, but mainly it is a place where I share what I do and find others of similar interests doing the same.

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  • ed hardy bags

    Nice post. This post is different from what I read on most blog. And it have so many valuable things to learn. Thank you for your sharing!

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  • Aaron Goldman

    Agree wholeheartedly. This whole project is a joke. With no punchline!

    Reading the Mekanism brief makes it seem a bit more coherent but still a lame stunt. Wish they'd have stuck with the idea to have the message read, “I'm going to be on the cover of Fast Company.” Positioned that way, there'd be less of a let down following the click.

  • michaeldurwin

    So AMber, you were influenced by Tac Anderson to click on a link, even sign up. Certainly it would have been more fulfilling or valuable had the exercise been attached to some great fount of information or a charity, but the fact is that Tac influenced you, for better or for worse. He asked you to do something, and you did it. That's called “influence”. Did FastCompany use the egos of the social media savvy to influence them to spread this, absolutely. As you said, “Influence can be quiet, understated, and wielded with grace”, but you're a fool if you don't think influence can be asinine, aggressive, goofy, loud, obnoxious., redundant, derivative, etc.
    Look at TV commercials that target kids: they're loud, flashy, and sell the idea of fun or cool to kids that can't afford to buy their stuff but will get those kids to beg their parents to buy it. It may be distasteful but it's still influence.
    If you think that influence isn't tied to popularity, you need to think again. Who has more influence in politics, the candidate with the most votes or the candidate with the least? Who has more influence on Twitter, the user with the most Followers or the fewest. According to “influence” is:
    “the capacity or power of persons or things to be a compelling force on or produce effects on the actions, behavior, opinions, etc., of others”

    The person with the most influence would be the person with the most capacity to effect behavior (clicking on a link for example) through the force of their message and the amount of people they can effect.

    The biggest problem I see is that this exercise is clearly targeting social media folks who never accept the actual definition of terms like “influence”, “marketing”, “promotion” and who like to think that because they are involved professionally in social media for their companies, clients. or themselves that they are somehow better than professionals that write copy for print ads, design web sites, direct TV spots, or design cereal boxes.
    Everyone of those, including those leveraging social media for pay are involved in the process of using their skills and expertise to influence consumers to buy something. It's becoming really annoying to see “social media strategists” elevating themselves above traditional advertisers. Talk about ego!

  • Matt Ridings – Techguerilla

    Couple of notes here. I don't disagree with your definition of influence, in fact I just wrote an article on that referencing this blog post which essentially stated just that, and then led to a long discussion with Amber. In the end, it's clear that what Amber was trying to get across is what she'd like influence to be, not what it is explicitly defined as.

    In that vein, I couldn't agree more that there are deeper, more meaningful types of influence that are rarely measured effectively. Is it idealistic to suggest that we, as a species, should place more value on quality vs. quantity? I suppose, but then again if we only accept something “as the way it is” instead of pushing to make something better what change could we ever hope to affect?

    But mostly, I'd like to say that someone who obviously has a strong point of view like yourself and has valid points to make, may want to consider not wrapping those points in such vitriolic spewage that it makes it difficult to want to listen to what you're trying to say.

  • Linda Lopeke

    Hi Amber!

    I'm wondering if this isn't as simple as folks mistaking the verb for the noun. In a society conditioned to act without thinking, it isn't all that surprising to see confusion between action and perceived result. Influence and being influential are not the same thing. So refreshing to browse your post and the comments raised and see that people get that!

  • Kris Colvin

    Okay, that would be scary. I see what you mean.

  • Christine Ryder

    Your post made me think about how marketers mis/use advertising. You can buy fame. You can be famous for absolutely ridiculous things (helloooo reality television). But, as you say, influence is quieter, more graceful. There is a sophistication to influence. Influence is not equal to bull-in-a-china-shop (a.k.a. flash ads with dancing people). Influence takes patience, and wisdom. Most of all, it takes self-awareness. It is no wonder people get it wrong all the time.

  • michaeldurwin

    Matt, I wasn't offering “vitriolic spewage” but thanks for the insult. Was it vitriolic to assert that it is foolish to think that influence is ONLY subtle? Amber clearly states: “Influence is NOT jumping up and down, begging for people to click on stuff”. Well, I'm sure any of us can offer hundreds if not thousands of examples where influence has been exactly that. Some may argue that Madonna has been one of the greatest fashion, music, dance, and video influencers of all time. Did she do it with quiet, understated grace? No, she did it by wearing a sleazy bridal gown and writhing around on the stage.

    My point is that so many people involved in social media, are trying to elevate what they do by changing the very definitions of what they're doing so they can feel better about themselves. Anyone NOT working for a non-profit that is involved in marketing, promotions, pr, design, social media, is using their expertise to influence others to buy. it may be to buy into brand awareness, or to buy a warranty, but it all boils down to driving sales. In the same context, the power of your influence is directly related to how and how many you can influence. The “how” may have to do with your personality or perceived value (as was the case in the interaction between Amber and Tac) and the “how many” has to do with popularity. Would anyone argue that Chris Brogan has more influence in social media circles than I do? Part of that has to do with value, no doubt, but a major part has to do with his popularity (142 thousand to my 3 thousand followers). Why is Mark Zuckerberg a more sought after speaker than Jonathan Abrams or Cris Emmanuel. Could it be that Facebook is more popular and therefore more influential than Friendster?

    All that being said, I agree that we should continue to strive toward an ideal and should be placing more value on quality than quantity. I also agree that we should NOT accept things the way they are. However, I do believe we should be honest in our evaluation of they way things are in order to find ways to improve them. Simply denying the facts about what is offers no way to evolve.

  • Matt Ridings – Techguerilla

    Yes, when you use language such as “foolish”, “you're a fool”, “you need to think again”, “social media folks who never accept”, “who like to think that..”, “think that they are somehow better than”, etc. that is vitriolic. For someone who has such a grasp of the definition of the word “influence” you appear to not understand vitriol.

    I'm all for a rant, god knows I give plenty of them. My point was simply that I agree with virtually everything you said about influence yet came away wanting to not like you for needlessly attacking the author and commenters at a level I think uncalled for. When you generalize to such a degree you catch a whole lot of folks in your net, myself included. Many of us are those “fools” you are referencing. If your objective was to incite emotion, then kudos, well done. If it was to convince and “influence” others through a solid point, then I found the rest unnecessary and distracting. Just my opinion, take it or leave it.

  • gregwind

    My take was that Amber, and I as well, was disappointed that this “project” didn't rise above the simplest form of influence. It's the “hey, do me a favor” version of influence, and that doesn't seem to need a “project,” and certainly not one branded with FastCo's name. We get that some people are more popular than others. We got that in kindergarten. We want to know what FastCo can teach us about influence that we don't know already. So far this is an opportunity missed, and we that are only popular in context are left once again knowing our place in the world versus movie stars and basketball players. Our hopes that some forms of influence demonstrably create more value for everyone will continue to be simple hopes until someone can prove otherwise.

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  • Mari Smith

    Hey Erno – I sent a broadcast the night Fast Company messaged me to say the project was live. As I commented above, I acted in complete good faith. It just didn't occur to me that the FC initiative would be about ego, pimping links, etc. It saddened me to hear this perspective the next morning. If the project had been about *one* person getting their picture in the magazine, I would've viewed it differently. It would be more self-serving for sure. But the idea that everyone would be represented in the magazine felt to me more inclusive. And in today's social world we are all about the face/avatar so I saw this as a great opportunity for everyone to create more visibility for themselves. If I were to rewrite my email, I could certainly make it more clear how the link-clicking system works… and give my subscribers the option to click on mine or click the raw link to the project. ;)

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  • ernohannink

    I can see that Mary (good faith), you had so much influence on me that I registered :) or was it my ego that wants to be pictured in FC? I did the same thing, spread my link in good faith. Reading Amber's post made me realize that there is another angle to this story. I have learned a great deal from this post and the replies.
    Looking back at the invitations that were in my inbox for this contest I could not find a disclosure that these people were hand picked by FC to promote this contest. It also puts these influencers at the top of the chain letter. And I know whom has the most ROI of a chain letter.
    Weird thing is also that there is no way to correct it, to change your profile or remove it.
    Did you see this post… by Damien Basil?
    I feel so insecure now. Knowing already that I don't have enough 'influence' to be visible in that issue of FC… Was I influenced by this part 'You are more influential than you think.' probably. I already know that you influence a lot of people and me, so do Chris Heuer, Liz Strauss, Amber and others. And I am happy to share the knowledge of the people that influence me with some more people.

  • ernohannink

    Hi John, agree it is influence when people click a link and register. I was influenced by the person that send me a link and made me click. It also has to do with trust and ego. I trust the person that sent me the link and after reading the invite I clicked it. My ego made me believe I could be in that FC issue, clearly I wasn't thinking :)
    So we could also measure Trust with this sort of contest? Or measure Ego?

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  • Ted Wright

    Hi Amber –

    Now that we are a couple of days out, would you care to post an update comment? Other posts in other places were very harsh using headlines like “Incredibly Stupid” (Estaban Kolsky) and “Pyramid Scheme” (TechCrunch) for what turns out to be, when you read Mark's further comments and a poorly designed experiment to answer some really interesting questions. Given all of the vitriol spewed out in other places, are smart people going to be less inclined to put forth experiments to probe this idea of what is an Influencer and how valuable are they? These are just a couple of interesting questions that Fast Company seemed to be exploring with their hackneyed attempt.

    As someone who has been working with Influencers for that last ten years, I think Fast Company asked great questions. Let's not all beat the crap out of them just because their first attempt to answer their questions sucked. Experiments are about trial and error not trial and anger.

    Ted Wright

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  • AdamSinger

    You guys all play into Fast Company's linkbait – they win this round :)

  • Koann

    Hi Amber, Thanks so much for making this point which so many are trying to get across with blogs on the limits to value of mass followers on Twitter, for example. I'd guess FC was influenced by seeing Huffington Post's similar attempt to drive user engagement — all in all, a creative 'marketing' effort, but you're so right, no exercise in real influence.

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  • Jonha Revesencio

    I still think it's a neat way to keep track who's really listening to you (and actually click on your links) and act on what you just said.

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  • John Sheridan

    Hi Amber.

    Late to the party, as usual. (^:=

    Agree with your position, and I'm afraid I totally got reeled in in the same manner.

    From a measurement perspective, this type of thing always fascinates me: popularity vs. influence. I had a tweet exchange with Guy Kawasaki about this over a year and a half ago ( and really, it's not too meaningful.

    I'll buy the print issue of this Fast Company anyway, just to find out what the heck they were thinking.


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  • Natalie Sisson

    I'm also late to the party but interestingly enough I wish I'd read your blog post today before trying it out thanks to a friend who suggested it. Like everyone below I too expected much more from it, I really wanted to know who was in my community and sphere of influence that I could reach out to and form a valuable connection with.

    They had a lot of potential to do something great here. This is not about a popularity contest.

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  • Beth

    When I received a note from someone about the Influence Project, I at first took a look and tried to weigh it's potential worth. As a co-founder and Exec Dir of a non-profit, I know the importance of spreading the word around and getting your work known but I confess that I've grown to hate all these popularity contests which quite frankly take me away from what I set out to do more than 3-years ago…provide quality, inclusive services to kids and teens with special needs. The contests that involve receiving funding irritate me even more because they don't necessarily weigh the real worth of the program rather the amount of people you can get to vote for you.

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  • Brent Kobayashi

    Hi Natalie,

    I agree – they did have a lot of potential to do something great. But maybe they have. What if WE thought of The Influence Project as a platform?

    It is a limited platform for expression, but it is something that I think could be affected externally.

    This is an experiment – but it seems those that aren't happy are disengaging from the experiment – what if they engaged in a different way? Could they make it mean something?

    More on my thoughts: