What is The Networked Age?

Nick Barron

In an age when individuals can impact businesses as powerful as Starbucks, Disney or the Daily Mail, the importance of influencers is obvious.

But if your first question is then ‘who are the influencers I need to worry about next?’ your approach to issues management is wrong. In The Networked Age issues come first, influencers second.

The influencers who will shape your licence to operate in future are not out there meticulously building their knowledge of a topic and cultivating people interested in a single issue, they are strident generalists, collecting followers with shared values, hungry for new material.

From Momentum to #BoycottSolo, social movements have proven their ability to grow rapidly and catch institutions off-balance, birthing prominent new influencers, or drawing established ones into their orbit.

No listening exercise could have flagged Elin Ersson before she streamed herself refusing to sit down on a Turkish Airlines flight deporting an Afghan citizen, yet her protest became an international story. Ersson’s influence was not based on her expertise or fan-base. All she needed was a mobile phone and an emotive story on a political fault-line.

Whether it’s #MeToo or the war on plastic triggered by Sky & Blue Planet, passionate subjects create movements

No mapping tool could have helped Starbucks avoid the controversy that the company’s treatment of Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson generated. No campaigners called for Starbucks to address unconscious bias before the issue broke. When influencers did add their opprobrium, they ranged from actor Wendell Pierce to producer Russell Simmons.

To prepare for future reputational risk, therefore, organisations should start by looking at the emerging issues that will fuel movements — and from there, wargame which influencers will shape the conversation.

So what are the emerging issues that will matter most? We have been working with our partners at UCL’s Affective Brain Lab to understand how psychology affects influence.

Whether it’s #MeToo or the war on plastic triggered by Sky & Blue Planet, passionate subjects create movements, while the biggest influencers are those with values most ‘similar’ to their audiences.

This is accelerated by ‘hyperpolarisation in groups’ — the process by which people with similar values coalesce around the most extreme position after discussing a topic. Such groups form very easily around #hashtags. Once an issue gains emotional traction, the position becomes a matter of collective identity and activists emerge.

Three things produce passionate communities in The Networked Age:

Firstly, care and fairness. According to Jonathan Haidt of NYU Stern, these are the two dominant values of liberal progressives. Issues where there are identifiable winners and losers will attract most support. Identity politics will play a growing role in reputation management.

Secondly, an enemy. The causes we support tend to be those that allow us to oppose someone. This is one reason why Oxfam’s focus on the super-rich vs the bottom 50% has been so successful. Organisations that want to avoid criticism need to prevent themselves being cast as “the other side”. #BBCswitchoff flopped because ultimately, progressives don’t see Auntie as the enemy.

Thirdly, scope for participation. Everyone is a PR person now, carefully cultivating their personal reputations. Stories where people can be part of ‘the solution’ are more likely to gain traction. Plastic snowballed as an issue partly because it’s easy for people to show themselves taking action.

So, who are the future influencers you need to worry about? Anyone with a phone who believes they are on the right side of history. But most of all, worry about the issues.