The question of the true nature of influence and how one exerts and measures it is one that has occurred to me at various junctures in the past. I have never made any studied attempt to become either influential or popular (two things that shouldn’t be confused with each other, as I will proceed to argue), but the dynamic underlying them is something that has long fascinated me. I stress that I have no desire to denigrate either of these ends: my reasons against pursuing them has nothing to do with their not being worthwhile to pursue, and everything to do with the fact that my overriding priorities in my online activity to date have been the careful formation of my own mind in conversation and the enjoyment of friendship.
In a recent post, Vicky Beeching raises issues relating to influence and impact on Twitter in particular, and has some very helpful thoughts on the forms of tweeting and interaction best calculated to foster an engaged community of followers. Her post prompted me to revisit the question of influence and to give some more thought to discerning its precise character.
Popularity and Influence
At the very outset we should distinguish between influence and popularity, two things that are frequently confused. Influence is the power to produce a change or effect. Popularity is the state of being widely admired, desired, sought after, or liked. One can be influential without being popular, and extremely popular without being influential.
Justin Bieber has almost 25 million followers on Twitter. His followers are some of most vocal and fanatical tweeters out there. Millions upon millions of dollars are spent on his records, concerts, and merchandise every year. Everything that Justin says is retweeted thousands of times and people are clamouring to touch the hems of his digital garments. While this extreme level of popularity may seem to represent the very zenith of human influence, I want to argue that those who hold such a notion might be mistaken. To do so, we will need to unpack the definition of influence.
First, influence is the power to produce a change or effect. It is not just a matter of having an impact, but about creating an impact. The truly influential person has the power to produce a change or effect that bears the mark of their personal agency.
The true influencer is a cause of something original and new. Many of the most popular persons in society today are largely the effects of existing social processes and forms or of movements that primarily bear the mark of other persons’ agencies. They are bearers of the influence of others, rather than influencers in their own right. Even in talking about the influence of Justin Bieber, we need to distinguish between Justin Bieber the individual and Justin Bieber the phenomenon. The influence of the former is fairly limited. What influence the latter has is in large measure the influence of people behind Justin Bieber the individual – record producers, executive producers, stylists, agents, publicists, advertisers, song writers, advisors, etc. Many people who have been in a similar position have spoken of feelings of powerlessness within the whirlwind of their own publicity, being reduced to mute and malleable channels for other parties’ influence.
Even when speaking about the influence of the Justin Bieber phenomenon, we should recognize that its impact is much of a kind with many previous social phenomena of the same kind. If Justin Bieber did not exist, the music industry would have discovered and produced someone else much the same. It is unlikely that we will be talking about the effect of Justin Bieber upon music in thirty years’ time.
Second, following on closely from the previous point, influence is about controlled and directed impact. The truly influential person has a significant measure of independent and self-conscious control over what they do, think, and say and, through that, also upon others. The influential person is not the juggernaut but the steering wheel, not the immense tanker but the relatively small rudder. The true influencer is known by their capacity to change, set, and hold the course of a movement, or by the fact that a larger development bears the distinct mark of their personal stance and course. A very modest, yet calculated and determined, force, applied at the right place and time can have a far more dramatic long term effect than considerably more powerful forces applied without control. A hundred hands pushing the bow can’t compete with a single hand on the tiller.
Third, a person’s influence can be measured by the long term effects of their actions. If your impact is limited to the impressionable, you aren’t especially influential, nor will you leave much of a legacy. The impressionable are easily influenced, but are exceedingly fickle, so don’t hold onto any influence for long, nor are they very effective at driving a movement against the flow. Once they are no longer subject to the initial force or impact, the impressionable will merely be tossed in another direction by the next movement to arrive. The truly influential person will produce an effect that retains the mark of their personal agency and control many years after they have left the scene. Popularity throws the surface of the waters of the society into a frothing and seething frenzy, but the truly influential person changes the course of the underlying current.
The Three Stages of Influence
I believe that influence can be broken down into three distinct stages.
1. Independent Agency
The influencer is someone who can exercise robust, decisive, determined, and intense independent agency or thought. If you are not a strongly independent, original, and creative thinker and actor you are not really an influencer at all, but a channel for other people’s influence. This exercise of independent agency and thought is the sine qua non of influence. To be an influencer you have to be the first cause of something new. In order to be the first cause of something new, you have to be capable of and profoundly competent in thinking and acting for yourself, confident and assertive in advancing your actions or views, decisive in choosing a course and rejecting others, thick-skinned and strong in standing for a position against resistance, determined in holding to your convictions, decisions, and course without wavering or vacillating, and powerful in driving your point home.
2. Having an Impact
In order to be influential, at some point the influencer has to make an impact upon other persons. An impact can take many forms. It can take the form of extreme popularity, or it can be an impact that passes largely unrecognized, sometimes even by the influencer themselves. It can be a dramatic and forceful shock, or a gentle and gradual effect. The impact is the point when your position or example makes contact with others. It is this stage of the process that is often mistaken for the whole thing, as influence is confounded with immediate visible effect and popularity. In actual fact, while necessary, the impact of the most effective influencers is frequently imperceptible on the surface of a society.
3. Making and Leaving an Impression
An impact by itself is insufficient if it fails to leave an impression. Such an impression occurs when you impact people in a manner that causes them to change, without throwing yourself off course in the process. The truly influential person is able to impress the mark of his or her agency and thought onto the most agentic leaders and deepest thinkers in a society, or able to form strong leaders and profound thinkers that bear that mark. Leaving one’s impress on the putty of the minds and hearts of the impressionable is easy and can appear to be powerful and effective, but it is no less easily erased. Those who can engrave their mark onto minds and wills of granite are those to whom the future belongs.
The effect of true influence is change that outlasts you in the form of a deep and firm impression.
The Nature of Influential Movements
If my theory of influence is on target, here are a few things that should be characteristic of highly influential persons and movements.
1. Rigorous Self-Definition
The influential movement or person is highly independent and determined in their action and thought. They are not merely reacting against some other party, or acting on whim or vague impulse. They know exactly what they stand for and why they do so. They are not blown off course by others, and can hold their nerve even when facing extreme opposition.
2. Prioritization of Vision over Popularity
Perhaps the greatest dimension of this holding of nerve is seen in the refusal to let the discomfort, anger, or resistance of members of one’s following or close contacts distract you from your goal. The influential person or movement will ruthlessly pursue its vision, and won’t abandon its course for the sake of those who complain or seek to be obstructionist.
Jesus should be our example here. Followed by excited crowds, Jesus portrayed his vision in the most uncompromising of terms, in a manner that alienated the vast majority of his hearers. His refusal to sacrifice vision for popularity meant that his teaching left a powerful impression that went far beyond a merely popular but rapidly dissipating impact. If people want to leave your movement because you won’t compromise on your proper mission, let them go: you will be more effective without such deadweight. The person or movement with such nerve will inspire their followers to have the same resolve and determination.
3. Lack of Anxiety about Numbers
If what I have said to this point is correct, then numbers are a poor metric of influence. Provided that you are firmly standing for something and making a deep and lasting impression on some very strong personalities and deep thinkers, wider impact is only of secondary importance. The influential movement will value intense impression over visible impact every time.
4. Playing to Strengths
The influential movement focuses on playing to the strengths of individuals and societies. Populist movements tend to adopt a contrasting approach. While populist movements seek out the most impressionable members of society at those points where they are most vulnerable to manipulation or influence, influential movements seek out the least impressionable members of society. While the most impressionable members of society are ideal for visible impact, it is upon the least impressionable members of society that you can best leave a lasting mark.
Christian evangelism should strive to engage with power at its most pronounced, thought at its most intense, character at its most formed, the passions at their profoundest depths, individuals at their point of greatest strength, and with the most decisive and strong willed actors in society. If you can make an impression at these points, the rest of society will follow, and people will exhibit a far more wholehearted and uncompromising commitment. This, it seems to me, is a pattern that can be witnessed in the early church: your purpose is to reach and to form leaders with convictions and wills of steel.
Communities and persons that adopt this approach, although they may experience success in the short term, are all about winning the long game. There aren’t shortcuts, and routes that promise instant popularity usually do so because they are merely amplifying or tapping into existing trends, rather than starting new ones. Doing things the right way will prove rewarding in the final end, producing a movement that is far more resilient, assertive, and determined. Influence generally grows slowly from small seeds, and the greatest victories usually go to the patient.
1. We are not all called to be influencers, nor do I believe that ‘influencing’ is the only way to have a positive effect in countless people’s lives. We can, for instance, be connection formers, publicists, people who open themselves up to and who pass on worthy influences, people who create communities within which the influence of other parties can be felt, etc. This demands a certain modesty and humility of us, a recognition that there are worthier voices out there than our own. For instance, the Church might be far better served if fewer authors wrote new books on well-covered ground and instead gave themselves to publicizing or updating the very best of the classic works that have been written on those subjects already. Striving to be a forgotten channel for another’s vision of Jesus is part of what is involved in Christian service. There is no embarrassment in not being an ‘influence’. It is far preferable to be a channel for influences that will stand the test of time than to set oneself up as an influence that will not.
2. The strength of popularity is primarily that of being a channel for worthy influences. Most popular persons are not influencers (in the sense defined above) themselves, but can do untold good through their passing on of key influences to others. Popular persons also form communities and networks within which worthy influences can be discovered and publicized.
3. Many of the greatest influences will not be known until the last day, nor will we have a true measure of the scope of our influence until history is ended. Many of the most influential people of our generation will die unknown, their influence only coming to public fruit many decades hence, by which time many of the persons who enjoy such popularity today will be lost to the anonymity of history. Some of the greatest influences of all are also the most modest and unassuming. The quiet but determined godliness of faithful and prayerful parents like St Monica or Susanna Wesley has exerted a profounder influence on the course of history than many persons who enjoyed unrivalled popularity and public renown in their day. Influence is thus largely something that lies with God, a harvest given after faithful sowing. As we are faithful in our sowing we can leave the increase to him. The warning against premature judgment of influence should also serve as a check against either despair or envy resulting from perceived lack of influence. It also enables us to focus upon being faithful in the here and now.
4. The megachurch vision of Christianity, when it focuses on fame, popularity, and numbers as the supposed metric of influence, must be resisted. Such personality and charisma-driven movements will tend to be shallow in comparison to churches where lines of influence are more opaque, where the key influencers are largely humble and unknown and the channels of their influence are also continually rendering themselves less visible.
5. A movement that seeks genuine influence over popularity will be more open to remaining anonymous. Most profound ideas cannot easily or directly be popularized. They filter down through chains of influence. The most significant influencers may only directly influence a handful of other individuals, but their influence slowly goes through the whole system. There is seldom a direct connection between the most deep thinking of influencers and the masses. Hegel didn’t have to write for the masses to change the world. Some works that could only fully be understood by a handful of persons have made a far greater dent on history than other books read by countless millions. A heavily mediated chain of influences enables a high level of conversation to occur within a community that also engages with people at the popular level. People who seek direct influence in the form of popularity tend to reduce thought to the lowest common denominator of the group, and do not foster the high level of thought that would empower the movement to exert an influence over other leaders.
I would be interested to hear your thoughts on the above. What are some of the ways that you believe that an influential movement is formed? Would you distinguish between popularity and influence?