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Some of you may be interested in the recent (2003) book "The Influentials" by Ed Keller and Jon Berry, executives with RoperASW, a polling and consulting firm. To my mind, the book represents the intersection of "The Tipping Point," "Bowling Alone," and Hazel Markus's Presidential Address at this year's Society for Personality and Social Psychology conference. Like the "mavens" and "connectors" described in "The Tipping Point" (which Keller and Berry cite), Influentials frequently recommend (and get asked by other people to recommend) restaurants, movies, etc. to other people. Influentials are also extremely active in their communities, reminscent of the kind of people whose diminishing presence is lamented in "Bowling Alone" (also cited).
Certainly another of the most important features of Influentials, beyond their activity and information sharing, is that they tend to be "ahead" of the public in adopting products. As one example (Figure 1-11, p. 64), in 1997 roughly 40% of Influentials had a cell phone, whereas the total public did not reach this level of usage until roughly 2001. Thus, in certain domains at least, the ideas held by Influentials could have a major impact on later societal trends.
This is where Hazel's Presidential Address comes in. One of themes revealed by the authors' polling to be running through Influentials' thought processes is a "movement toward self-reliance" (p. 185). Keller and Berry note that self-reliance is "deeply rooted in the American psyche" (p. 185), yet this theme (or meme) apparently has gained greater currency than in previous years. The authors advise that:
"Businesses and institutions that interact with Americans need to take account of these attitudes and behaviors of autonomy in their products, services, communications, and operations" (p. 185).
As anyone who was at Hazel's talk in Austin can attest, American companies have not missed a beat in incorporating self-reliance/autonomy themes into their advertising! The book even mentions British sandwich shop "Pret A Manger" (p. 275), which Hazel also mentioned.
Another theme, known as the "legacies agenda," appears to have some similarity to the Eriksonian concept of generativity, as studied by researchers such as Dan McAdams (as Keller and Berry say, "...thoughts are turning more to the next generation," p. 231).
An important question is how one would identify an Influential. The subheading of the book -- "One American in ten tells the other nine how to vote, where to eat, and what to buy" -- gives us an idea. Actually, the one-in-ten figure was pre-determined by the researchers, going back to company founder Elmo Roper. A set of items on political and social activism is administered and someone must claim to have participated in at least three activities on the list. The authors note:
"The target was to produce the 10% of the public that was most active, a figure that seems both philosophical (reflecting Roper's thinking that the politically active were about 10-12% of the society) and practical (yielding a sufficient base of respondents to produce meaningful data)" (p. 19).
I would think that contemporary network linkage methodologies mapping who gave advice to whom, within frameworks such as the "centrality" measures used by network analysts or "scale-free networks" described by Barabasi in his book "Linked," could offer more precise delineations of Influentials. However, the Roper firm's procedure for identifying a select 10% has practical simplicity on its side and appears to work reasonably well.
In terms of the actual experience of reading the book, one may find the high volume of charts and graphs to be at least somewhat overwhelming and tedious. Compared to what most academic researchers would expect, the scholarly references -- though there -- are generally brief. In addition to Malcolm Gladwell's "The Tipping Point" and Robert Putnam's "Bowling Alone," other cited works that many of you will recognize include Robert Cialdini's "Influence" and Mark Granovetter's work on how individuals use networks to look for a job.
"The Influentials" is probably meant more for a business (marketing, consulting) audience, although many of you might enjoy it. If you go to the firm's website, http://www.roperasw.com/ , you'll see that the Influentials framework plays a key role in the company's work.
Alan Reifman, Ph. D., Associate Professor
Dept of Human Dev't and Family Studies
College of Human Sciences
Texas Tech University
Lubbock, TX 79409-1162
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