Fast Company's Influence Project Is About to Burst Every "Social Media Guru's" Bubble

In case you needed one more virtual assurance that you have online friends, Fast Company has introduced "The Influence Project."

The project is an attempt to produce a quantitative social media metric, and from a marketing angle, it will undoubtedly draw more eyeballs and clicks to the Fast Company site.

From Fast Company's website:

About the Project

We started with a simple question: Who are the most influential people online right now?

That's what The Influence Project is designed to answer. By participating, you will have your picture appear in the November issue of Fast Company magazine as part of an amazing photo spread. The more influence you demonstrate, the bigger your picture will be.

You may discover that you're more influential than you think.

Influence is not only about having the most friends or followers. Real influence is about being able to affect the behavior of those you interact with, to get others in your social network to act on a suggestion or recommendation. When you post a link or recommend a site, how many people actually bother to check it out? And what's the likelihood of those people then forwarding it on? How far does your influence spread?

This is the type of influence we're looking for. We want to find the most influential person online.
Who knows? It might even be you.

Has social networking replaced reality TV? Can everyone now have their 15 microseconds of fame and be happy? But at what cost? Will you spam your friends, tweet your followers, and update your status incessantly to be considered "influential?" Fast Company defines "real influence" as being able to affect the behavior of those "you interact with." How does spamming someone into clicking a link count as interacting? And how does bringing them to a web site with your photo on it count as affecting their behavior?

What happened to the days when having influence meant producing thought provoking ideas and reactions? It's like asking what happened to the days when you actually had to have money to afford a house or a savings account to apply for a credit card.

On July 2nd, Michael Estrin, who ironically freelances for Fast Company, wrote a column titled, "Is the Social Media Bubble About to Burst?" In his column he argues that agencies and brands are overvaluing their "friends" and explores the right and wrong ways of using social media. "There's only a bubble if a brand pays too much for its friends," he says, "Which means the question of a bubble depends on ROI."

The idea was pitched as "The Cover Project" to Fast Company in February 2010 by Mekanism, a creative production studio located in New York and San Francisco. (I purposefully did not hyperlink to their studio because their website's music is that abrasive.) But in their presentation they wrote,

"Ultimately, it's an attention-getting, easy to participate in viral stunt that will result in lots of coverage and get Fast Company the attention it deserves. And, Fast Company will forever be known to as the magazine that put me on its cover."

For the moment, brands like Fast Company need to think long and hard before redefining what influence means. Influence is based on trust and targeted connections, not ego and self-adulation. Just writing about Fast Company's Influence Project will contribute to its going viral, but hopefully it will influence a few "social media gurus" from wasting the time of their friends and followers.