Social media has blind spots: people whose real-world influence isn’t easy captured on social media. There is the “Warren Buffett Problem” (influential people who have no online presence) and the “Seth Godin Problem” (people influential in one online network but not a participant in others).
Now, I’d like to propose the “Alan Schwarz Problem.” Schwarz is the most influential person in football right now, the guy who cracked open the debate on concussions and brain damage. That debate — not the current, season-threatening discussion over how to divide the obscene pot of money that football now generates — is the one that is most likely to shape or threaten the long-term future of America’s new pasttime. And yet Schwarz, a baseball guy for most of his career, was entirely invisible to the football community before he published his first concussion article 4 years ago. He was not an “influencer,” as social media type say.
Efforts to understand influence in social media are retrospective. They look at past history and assume it is indicative of future performance. And this is not a bad approach: unlike a stock portfolio, what happened yesterday is a pretty good indicator of what will happen tomorrow. But there are blind spots. Even the most careful algorithm is of marginal benefit in predicting when an Alan Schwarz will appear.
Solving the Alan Schwarz Problem requires a different mode of thinking, on that is driven by both data as well as well as old-fashioned human interaction. Successfully identifying emerging, important voices on a topic requires:
- Immersion in a Culture: The discussions that journalists, bloggers and other online denizens have in public is often distinctly different from those that happen in the back channel and hallways. Understanding — and participating in — those conversations can help identify shifts in authority before the become clear.
- Alertness for ‘Black Swan‘ Influence Moments: It can be hard for influence algorithms to make sense of a single data point. But the subtext of Schwarz’s first concussion article — it ran on Page One of the New York Times — screamed that this was an issue that the Times was unlikely to walk away from. Understanding the dynamics of any media ecosystem, from how a paper plays a given story to how RTs proliferate through Twitter to the pattern of blog comments can provide subtle context to what might come next.
- Over-Emphasizing the ‘New’: On the FDA beat, my old stomping group and an area of great interest to me, the primary reporter for a half-dozen of the most important outlets has changed in the past 6 months. Looking at how the old reporter viewed the agency is useless; we have to adapt quickly to what the new reporters are saying, even if they don’t have a long track record.
This is obviously as much art as science, and it requires more than a fair dose of human intervention and uncertainty. (As Yogi Berra once said: “It’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future.”) But that’s where the real value is. And if you want to spot the Alan Schwarz quickly in your industry, it’s a risk you have to take.
[In addition to the post, I've also created a Google Plus slideshow on the subject.]