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Harvesting online influencers

In BusinessWeek, Heather Green reported on Google's attempts to design an algorithm for ranking people as well as web pages. So ranked, people can then leverage their internet influence to attract ad dollars to their social networking profiles.

The new technology could track not just how many friends you have on Facebook but how many friends your friends have. Well-connected chums make you particularly influential. The tracking system also would follow how frequently people post things on each other's sites. It could even rate how successful somebody is in getting friends to read a news story or watch a video clip, according to people familiar with the patent filing. "[Google] search displays Web pages with the highest influence—it makes complete sense for them to extend this to online communities and people," says Jeremiah Owyang, an analyst at Forrester Research (FORR).

If you are good at getting your friends to watch YouTube videos or follow links or look at photos, then you become worthy of sponsorship by advertisers. This makes explicit the way in which sociality online is a competitive sport, less about conviviality but power. And there's nothing like money to sharpen how we define ourselves on the internet, where our "presence" is far more throughly commercialized and monetized than it ever could be in the real world. A more catholic ranking scheme imposed by Google would most likely intensify that evolution, rendering voluntary, unmonitored reciprocity a quaint archaism. Why recommend anything to anyone without a finder's fee?

But there's a catch to the whole friends-for-money scheme: as it stands, Google will get your sponsorship money, while you get, if anything, the permission to use social networking services for free.

Using today's standard advertising methods, a company such as Nike (NKE) would pay Google to place a display ad on a fan's page or show a "sponsored link" when somebody searches for basketball-related news. With influence-tracking, Google could follow this group of fans' shared interests more closely, see which other fan communities they interact with, and—most important—learn which members get the most attention when they update profiles or post pictures.

The added information would let Nike both sharpen and expand its targeting while allowing Google to charge a premium for its ad services.

This reminds me of Nicholas Carr's assessment of Web 2.0 technologies -- or "digital sharecropping" as he calls it:

Web 2.0's economic system has turned out to be, in effect if not intent, a system of exploitation rather than a system of emancipation. By putting the means of production into the hands of the masses but withholding from those same masses any ownership over the product of their work, Web 2.0 provides an incredibly efficient mechanism to harvest the economic value of the free labor provided by the very, very many and concentrate it into the hands of the very, very few.

So if Google has its way, amateur influencers of the future will have to content themselves with being paid in sheer prestige alone, like those BzzAgents who shill for advertisers for free (or for the comfort of having a commercial alibi for talking to people).

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