How Influencers Evolved in the Digital Age

June 9th, 2015   •   no comments   

How Influencers Evolved in the Digital Decades
Orginal image courtesy of The Drum

How have social influencers changed over the years? What impact does technology play on the evolution of influence?

I asked myself this question as I reflected on how much things have changed over the past two decades. 

The 5 Cs of the 1970s to 1980s

As a child of the 1970s and 1980s, I recalled how different the world was then. Academic and career achievements were the chief arbiters of success. Back then, power was concentrated around those who had the 5 Cs – Cash, Career, Cars, Condos, and Credit Cards.

In those days, social influencers were those who scaled the corporate and political ladder. Oh, and celebrities, of course.

Technology wise, the old computers of my childhood were a far cry from what we have today. Clunky and noisy, they include Sinclairs to Ataris to Commodores to Apple’s first computer. Many of them ran on cassette tapes followed by 5 and 3/4 inch disketters, and were only used by techie hobbyists.

Computers Get Connected in the 1990s

When I first joined the workforce in the mid 1990s, the Internet was then a fledgling playground. Social media then comprised bullet boards, forums, and chat rooms, filled with geeks and nerds. mIRC and ICQ anyone?

Technology was still more of a toy than a huge game changer, especially with the snail-like speeds of 14.4K to 56.6 K modems. In the nascent and primitive worlds of the Internet, the wizards of the web slowly rose to become a new breed of influencers.

The 1990s was also the era of e-commerce. and eBay flourished during that era. Desktops ruled and Microsoft was the untouchable king of the digital hill.

The Rise of Content-Rich Wikis and Blogs

Things shifted quickly in the late 1990s to 2000 as wikis and blogs started coming into the fore. Innovators started creating their own blogs on all kinds of topics – technology, business, politics, lifestyle, fashion, food and so on. Content became king.

The biggest keyword then? Web 2.0 as coined by Tim O’Reilly and Dale Dougherty in late 2004. The term emphasised how user-generated content, usability, and interoperability rose to prominence with the democratisation of technology. Anybody can now set up their own content platforms.

While some tackled serious issues of significance, the majority of user-content channels were created by hobbyists and online diarists. The kingpins of influence then were the peddlers of fun and parody.

With wikis and blogs, reputation and influence started morphing. Creators who were masters at producing compelling content could sway public opinion. Some of these digital thought leaders could even challenge traditional media companies at their game.

Social Networking Grows Online Communities

In the mid 2000s, our lives underwent another sea change with the advent of social networks – LinkedIn (May 2003), Facebook (February 2004), YouTube (February 2005), and Twitter (March 2006).

These digital kingpins brought down the barriers of entry to content creation, information dissemination and community forming. They also made it easy for anybody to seed and spread an idea through their inherent connectivity.

As social networks proliferate, the yardsticks of popularity and acclaim shifted yet again. While content was still king, community became an important tenet of success.

Measures of influence then shifted beyond readers and viewers to fans and followers. Likability became the new yardstick of influence.

Social Influencers Become Mobile

Perhaps the most iconic moment in social technology occurred in June 2007 when Steve Jobs released the first iPhone.

While smartphones were long available then, it was the iPhone (followed closely by Android phones) which ushered in the age of mass and mobile social networking.

Jobs added another digital feather to his cap by unveiling the iPad in April 2010. This was followed hot on the heels by challengers with their own Android and Microsoft OS powered tablets.

Empowered by smartphones equipped with powerful cameras and blazing fast processors, consumers turned overnight into content generators. This overflow of user generated content on 24/7 social networks triggered the need for curators and intermediaries.

These influencers could sift through the wheat and the chaff, maneuver the digital air waves and re-purpose content for consumption.

Appification of Everything

As smartphones and tablets became the preferred content consumption platform, our world became increasingly dominated by apps.

With ubiquitous appification becoming the norm, measures of influence have shifted yet again. It no longer suffices for you to be “social” – you now need to be “gamified”.

With mobile native apps like Instagram, Vine and Snap Chat leapfrogging over “fuddy duddy” social networks, it no longer suffices for you to have a large fanbase. Engagement is now the name of the game.

If your status update/tweet/photo/video can’t grab my attention in the next 2 seconds, you are gone.

The Next Wave of Digital Influence

So what’s next?

Well, at this stage, it is anybody’s guess. Some have proposed that wearable tech, big data, geo-location and social networks could usher in a new age of context. Others have proposed that big data and predictive analytics could be the next game changer.

Customer experience has also been touted as the most important digital marketing trend in the future, spurred no doubt by the increasing demands of always-on consumers.

Personally, I see that the answer probably lies in embracing the new without completely discarding the old. The future of influence is probably a mash-up of compelling content, connected community, skillful curation, contextual relevance and customer experience.

A tall order? Definitely!

The Times They Are A-Changin’

Whatever the case may be, what’s certain is that we cannot sit still and hope for the best. To thrive and succeed in the ever changing digital enabled world, we need to continually hone our craft, build our reputations, refine our strategies, and adapt.

Let me end with these lines from Bob Dylan’s classic hit The Times They Are A-Changin’…

Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.

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