I’ve been thinking about my presence on the internet from the early days, from my time at Argonne National Labs near Chicago in 1988-1989 and from my graduate school days at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis in 1989-1992. That was even before the web browser days, which didn’t come out till 1993-94. Mosaic browser was first released in 1993. And I remember the excitement we had at work when we installed an early version of Netscape browser in 1994.
There was internet of course even before the browser. In addition to the worldwide email which primarily linked major universities and research labs, there were numerous user groups — virtual discussion groups — that I used to take part in and contribute to. I suppose that was the equivalent of today’s social networking. Amazingly enough, after all these years most of that information exchange and communication lives on and Google easily finds it. For example, here is a post of mine from Aug. 1991 on soc.culture.iranian, where I have translated a rubai (a form of Persian poem consisting of two lines each made up of two segments) by the ancient Persian poet, mathematician, philosopher, and astronomer, Omar Khayyam. From the URL you can see that it has been archived on a server at MIT. Also note that those groups are still active under Google Groups.
So over the years I have produced a lot of digital content. Thousands of emails in my Yahoo! and Gmail accounts Sent folders (not counting nearly 100,000 emails just in my personal inboxes as I have not written those), over 4,000 photos on Flickr, three different blogs with tens of posts, some of which are syndicated on other sites such as Ulitzer.com, and numerous technical papers and presentations published online or residing on various employers’ repositories.
In keeping up with the Web 2.0 and social media era, I also have thousands of status updates, shares, wall posts, and messages on Facebook, LinkedIn, Yahoo! Updates, Google Buzz and Twitter, and hundreds of bookmarks on Delicious. Besides all this digital content that I have produced, there is also the more important digital asset that I have: the people in my online communities, social networks and groups. Nearly 1,500 contacts in my Yahoo address book, more than 2,000 people in a Yahoo Group email list, more than a thousand friends on Facebook, almost 600 contacts on LinkedIn, and the thousands that I follow or follow me on my three Twitter accounts, just to name a few.
In an attempt to formalize the above discussion, I want to introduce a couple of terms. The first is Digital Footprint (DF), by which I mean all the digital content that one has produced and that resides on the internet, including text, image, audio, and video. An important element that accounts for DF is blogs and the frequency of posts on them. Digital footprint also includes one’s presence on the internet and membership in various internet services including various forms of social networks.
Virtual Social Influence
The second and the more important term is Virtual Social Influence (VSI), by which I mean one’s influence on others on the internet especially in the social networks such as those on Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace, Twitter, and Ning, and in the context of social media in general such as blogs. There are many factors that play into VSI.
The number of visitors to your blogs, comments on your blog posts, subscriptions to your blogs, online newsletters (if any); retweets, buzz, mentions, potential downloads and social bookmarks (e.g. Delicious, StumbleUpon, Digg) on your digital content.
The size of your networks, e.g. friends on Facebook, contacts on LinkedIn, following and especially followers on Twitter, other specialized social networks that you may belong to such as those on Ning. Note that the number of followers alone on Twitter is hardly an accurate measure of one’s influence. There are Twitter users with thousands followers (using automated Twitter tools) who have only a handful of tweets. That is no influence at all.
The number and the size of the groups that you belong to within your social networks.
How active you are in these networks and groups within; i.e. how often you post information and updates on them, such as status updates and tweets, link sharing, photo and video uploads, and one-on-one communication. In addition to the quantity, the quality of updates and tweets also matters. This is not as straight-forward but the number of retweets, shares, comments, social bookmarks, etc. are indications of the quality of one’s updates or tweets.
How active and influential others in your networks and groups are. People in your networks who have dormant accounts and hardly log in or use the networks, should count very little if at all. Alternatively if you have people of influence connected to you, then that would increase your social influence.
How powerful and influential are your networks. The collective power and influence of the people in any network may define how influential a group is as a whole. The higher the influence of your networks, the higher should be your social influence.
Last but not least, how influential you are in your networks. For example, how often the information you post on Facebook gets shared, liked, or commented on. On Twitter it is how often your tweets get retweeted, and the number of mentions, especially follow recommendations you get, how many lists (public or private) you are listed on, and the follower/following ratio. The idea is that the bigger this number, the bigger is the VSI.
I am no sociologist, but I suspected that the term Social Influence would have some meaning in sociology, and it certainly has. According to Sociology Encyclopedia:
“Social influence is defined as change in an individual’s thoughts, feelings, attitudes, or behaviors that results from interaction with another individual or a group. Social influence is distinct from conformity, power, and authority.”
Wikipedia also has an entry for social influence, which says it “occurs when an individual’s thoughts or actions are affected by other people.” It goes on to discuss three stages of social influence: compliance (people agree with others but keep it private), identification (people are influenced by someone who is liked and respected), and internalization (people accept a belief or behavior publicly).
These definitions are right on, but they are general and not tied to the internet. By adding virtual I mean to restrict it to online presence, specifically in the context of the virtual social networks that one belongs to and social media that one plays a role in. However the internet is such an integral part of our lives nowadays that VSI most likely (but not necessarily) also means social influence outside of the internet in real life. And probably vice versa.
How do they relate to each other?
Presumably the larger one’s digital footprint, the bigger may be her or his virtual social influence. And if someone has a large VSI, then he or she may also have a large digital footprint. But in general DF and VSI are independent of one another. One can have very large social networks (and potentially a large VSI) without necessarily producing large volume of digital content. VSI is primarily tied to the number of influential people in your networks, the extent of your interaction with them, and your influence on them.
On the other hand, a prolific author, scientist, graphic designer, a musician, or a film director may have a very large digital footprint, while not being active or even present in any online social network. In fact such a person, as unlikely as it may seem, may not even be an internet-savvy person. But his or her content most likely will be digitized and uploaded to the internet by various third-parties.
How do we measure them?
To get a rough idea of what your digital footprint is, you can google yourself and see how many references there are to your name. This is not entirely accurate and it does not necessarily mean that the larger the number of references to you, the bigger is your digital footprint. For example, there may be a lot of news about a celebrity, an artist, a traditional author, even a dictator or a criminal who has little or nothing to do directly with the internet and the digital/virtual world we live in.
In general I think it is not easy to measure one’s digital footprint and virtual social influence, because there are many variables, some subjective, to take into consideration. In terms of DF it may seem easy to quantify the digital content that one has produced, but even that gets complicated. For one thing, different type of content (e.g. text vs. audio/video) would need different weights to normalize them. Also if someone’s non-digital work gets digitized and becomes available on the internet through a third party, it should get lesser of a consideration (i.e. get a lower weight than a native digital work) because the original work was not in digital form.
Despite these challenges one can certainly devise formulas and analytics to come up with numerical or graphical representation for these terms. Though I am not aware of an aggregate and overall metrics or scoring for DF and VSI across the internet, there have been a number of attempts to quantify one’s presence and influence on specific social networks. I discuss two such methods below.
Grader.com provides a set of tools for rating and scoring various things such as web sites, press releases, and Facebook and Twitter accounts. The last two are of interest for this discussion. Twitter.grader.com grades a given user on Twitter. It comes up with a rank (among those graded), and a numeric score on a scale of 100. For example my Twitter rank on my main Twitter account (farshidk) as of this writing is 270,461 out of 6,349,313 users ranked, and my Twitter grade is 95.7 out of 100. Grader does not disclose how the exact formula for how this grade is computed but the key factors (most of which I have discussed above) are mentioned here. Obviously the usual suspects such as the number of followers, following and tweets play into the algorithm, as well as a number of other not so obvious factors.
Facebook.grader.com does a similar scoring for Facebook users as well as Facebook business pages. As of this writing, my Facebook (farshidk) rank is 1,945 out of 48,080 users ranked. My Facebook grade is 96.1 out of 100. A few of obvious variables that are accounted for are the number of friends, groups, and wall posts. But it should also consider the interaction in those group. Grader also considers the completeness of a Facebook profile in computing its grade.
KloutScore.com defines a Klout Score (or Kscore for short), a numerical score 1-100 that measures the size and strength of a Twitter user’s “sphere of influence”. The size is based on “true reach” (engaged followers and friends), the strength is measured based on one’s interactions in his or her network. Similar to the definitions of social influence and inline with my VSI, Kloutscore.com considers influence the ability to drive people to action, which on Twitter may be a reply/mention, retweet, or a click on a link in a tweet. Other variables such as follower/following ratio, follow back percent, and list count are also taken into consideration. It also considers a network score, which has to do with how influential the people who interact with you are. Apparently 25+ variables are used to compute a Kscore. You can see more details on this here.
Kloutscore.com also provides more detailed analytics and statistics on various Twitter related variables which I think are useful and insightful. If you are a serious Twitter user you should check out your Kscore. HootSuite which I consider to be one of the better Twitter clients, uses Klout Score for each follower and following. My Kscore on my main Twitter account (farshidk) is a mere 8! A big discrepancy between my Twitter Grade (95.7) and Kscore, but I believe the latter is more accurate. For one thing, I am pretty particular about my tweets and I do not necessarily engage in casual conversations on Twitter publicly. For example, I don’t consider tweets like “Good morning everyone” or “@Joe thanks for follow” of any value to any one.
Digital footprint and virtual social influence for your business
My discussion here has been focused on primarily an individual’s presence and influence on the internet and in social media. But this discussion equally applies to any business and brand(s). The DF and VSI for your business and brand especially for consumer-oriented products and services should be a good indicator of the success of your brand and business. The keyword that we typically use in this context is engagement — how engaged are your customers with your site, brand, etc. The ultimate social influence metric for your business of course is that your target audience buys your products or services.
Apple and its brands such as iPhone and iTunes are good examples of powerful and socially influential products and brands. I used to use BlackBerry for years but I recently switched to iPhone. And I am very happy with my decision which was partially influenced by friends, family and colleagues.
Having good metrics and analytics around people’s and business’ presence and influence on the internet and especially on various social networks will be increasingly more important as the emerging era of social computing takes shape. I’ve defined a couple of terms — digital footprint and virtual social influence — towards formalizing such concepts. Social influence is a well-defined concept in sociology and it carries over nicely to our virtual communities and social networks as virtual social influence. I’ve described a couple of existing scoring tools for Facebook and Twitter. I am sure that we will see more of these in the future.