Is influence a form of manipulation?

No. We will need to study what influence is in more detail as this argument seems a bit narrow minded. First of all, we need to differentiate two major types of influence:

  1. Personal influence that a person can have over their entourage or in a real life (IRL) work situation
  2. Online influence fueled by a structure and/or person on the internet, social media sites or their audience (through publishing articles on a blog for example).

Personal influence IRL is discussed in the Harvard Business Review from July to August 2013 entitled “Influence, How to Get it, How to Use it”. This article indicates that IRL Influence is closely linked to a concept similar to manipulation. Notably, by the connection made with the fundamental principles in the works of Machiavelli (The Prince), explaining that the base of a social relationship can be summarized by the question “Is it preferable to loved or feared?”

This personal influence is inherent in all human beings, despite their professional situation or their social economic category, because this influence is most frequently encored in small groups of people (family, collaborators or friends). Very rarely and often seen in the case of a person that has sizable media coverage, the personal influence IRL can affect a large group of people. This is the case for Politicians, religious figures, certain CEO’s and Celebrities.

The more the IRL influence of these individuals is significant, the greater their community of followers/fans as well as their audience and the behavior of their users will be impacted by their opinion and influence IRL. The media scope of these influencers is therefore multiplied by the urgency of social media, for better or in some cases for worse…

However, personal influence, whatever the size, is often acquired by putting in place very humane methods, very close to manipulation, and that everyone perpetuates or puts up with. Lies, rumors, complacency, omission, flattery, complements, showing off, ect… There are a number of techniques that are often necessary for the integration of an individual into a group, the accent of the social hierarchy or to access glory and celebrity…

Even so, there is another type of influence that exists: online influence. This influence is very different from the manipulation equivalent in real life. This online influence takes the physical aspect out of the equation: charisma and beauty, posture and attitude, style and clothing, elocution and voice signature, capacity and facility to interact with others ect… All of this is put in the background and the stress is put on expert written media, the style and pertinence of the written works of the author (evidently fundamental qualities in acquiring influence IRL as well but inseparable from physically being in real life.

From the beginning of the internet era, individuals found a breath of fresh air in online influence, permitting them to unveil freely their personality, gusto and knowledge. This online influence, the most beautiful part of the actor’s personality, is the driver for online forums, MMORPG players guides, specialized communities centered around a common goal, blogs and a majority of the social media platforms detached from real life (Twitter for example).

We have now seen emerge new experts, new spokespeople, new people simply passionate about their every day subjects and the importance given to their online words is increase tenfold with confidence and recognition given by the audience each day. The opinion expressed by the author echoes the replies and debates in the commentary for each publication and the community increases and affirms its influence gradually. In time, the influencer will become the opinion leader in the center of the community for people that are fascinated by the same subject with one influencer and one voice that counts.

However, this influence can be created and develop without the author necessarily wishing or accepting its establishment. It can be created and grow naturally by the credibility and confidence that the audience holds for the author. The influence therefore, comes from external forces and is the most important and “purest” form of influence. People that have been able to achieve this high level of influence are often detached from their success (the success doesn’t go to their head contrary to other influencers who will become cocky with only a couple hundred followers…). This detachment towards being a sudden celebrity, from this unexpected pedestal, allows them to systematically reflect and approach possible partnerships and publicity deals with a qualitative frame of mind. They will also decide to have a more professional and sensible approach to monetization more centered on the subject and what is to be gained. Incidentally, this is also a differentiating point of manipulation that has a specific goal: acquiring wealth, a position of power, ect… However, online influencers do not start blogging with this precise goal in mind. They do it out of passion or need and this independence, this professionalism and this quality is what makes them essential to the current information scene.

If these influencers are also professional, it is because they are the most qualified and they will be the most sought out by brands and communication agencies. Certain influencers will receive several hundred press releases per day and bring in several hundred (or thousand) Euros by sponsored publications even allowing some influencers to live off their blog or their expertise that they bestow. It is no longer possible to count the number of influential bloggers hired by agencies to post key articles on social media sites, fashion bloggers hired as stylist or product managers/… in the flagships of the fashion industry, High Tech bloggers hired as consultants on new product development projects, ect… Passion begets expertise, that when recognized, begets influence and acknowledgment.

We can come back to the first point of this article being that influence is not manipulation or at least not in the way online influence is created and increases. If manipulation was an integral part of said online influence, in any way, the influence would not last a long time as the audience would deflect and the various communities reunited around the respective theme or passion would have imploded long ago. There are, of course, influent and manipulative people out there (“How to make 12 million Euros with a blog in 15 days, it really works!” is a good example), but they are unmasked rapidly, brushed aside from their peers and audience, and most of all don’t look to be desecrate to grow their audience (mass followers on twitter, aggressive SEO strategies, ect…)

Passion is and will always be the primary motor for blogging over any other reason and will remain the priority for an audience to trust a quality influencer far before any other classic manipulation techniques.

NB: For more information on influence IRL, I would highly suggest looking into the article by HBR on influence indicated in the beginning of this article. It is available on newsstands and online at the following link for a few more weeks.

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