Influence, Trust And Authority

Trust is a gray area to measure using quantitative metrics. Measuring an idea as subjective and nuanced as trust is difficult because you can never escape the simple fact that trust is relative. Someone may have a personal blog with only 20 readers, but those 20 readers soak in every word and trust the author deeply, taking any calls to action suggested and studying each word carefully. That person may be more trusted by their small, but loyal following than far more popular bloggers with greater numbers.

In a previous post defining the real value of your network, I touched on the point that raw numbers are irrelevant, what matters is if your network is activated, connected and determined – all indications of strong trust.

Hopefully we’re all on board with the fact that popularity is not trust. This of course begs the question, is it possible to put trust into an objective measurement?

The web loves to measure popularity and influence, and does so via several number-driven methods and tools including (but not limited to):

  • Google PageRank
  • Technorati rank
  • Alexa/Compete rank
  • Niche-specific ranking lists, such as the AdAge Power 150 list (which pulls numbers from a variety of sources)
  • Raw numbers of subscribers or followers
  • Number of links to a specific page
  • Emerging services that look at specific blog posts such as PostRank
  • Pro measurement tools such as Radian 6
  • Number of popular stories across social bookmarking sites

What these numbers measure is popularity and arguably authority, but not trust.

Steve Rubel wrote previously that PageRank is the ultimate measure of online influence. Steve is smart, you’ll note if you scan the page the word trust is not used a single time. He’s well aware influence is not trust, however what he does mention is authority.

We need some solid definitions if we’re going to move forward with this and talk semantics, which is worthwhile as all three of these words are thrown around frequently without much thought (I’m guilty of it too, which is why I’d like to draw a delineation between them). Disclaimer:  these are my interpretations, yours may vary:

Influence is the power of someone to be a compelling force on the actions of others. Robert Scoble is an influential person in getting us to try out new web services because he gets so jazzed about them we just have to try them out.

Trust is reliance on the integrity in someone (essentially confidence). If you stop and think about it, we trust each other a great deal in the social web.  Consider something as simple as all the shortened URLs you click each day, we trust our networks won’t send us a spam link.

Authority is power or right delegated, given or in the case of the web earned.  Lawrence Lessig, a law professor who has written several books and works hard as an advocate of free culture on the web is an authority on copyright (amongst other things).

With these definitions in mind…

  • My view of the three is that influence and authority are not necessarily personal, while trust is more abstract and difficult to measure because it is personal.
  • We have trust with people on the social web and blogs we read because we form personal relationships with the people behind the content. It is something that has been leeched from traditional media, and illustrates the shift in influence - from brands to people.
  • I previously wrote that attention + trust = influence.  I’d also add attention + trust = authority. Trust is the shortcut to both of these, thus explaining the earlier example of why someone with just 20 readers can be as influential or authoritative if not more so than popular people, at least to their networks.  In other words:  people/blogs/sites/Twitter users with high level of trust don’t show up in the influencer lists.
  • I’m not entirely convinced trust is measurable via automation with the tools we currently have – and while you could take several numbers, metrics or methods in tandem, it is difficult to gauge something so personal and always misses the less popular sites.
  • A potential bridge to trust without interacting with someone or something directly is either a preceding reputation or word of mouth from someone else that is trusted. But whether trust is actually bestowed from this is questionable.

And now to answer a quick reader question…

Katie Harris, director of qualitative research at Zebra Research recently asked:

How do you choose who to listen to/not listen to?

She asked this on Twitter, to which I replied I needed more space to define. Now that we’ve flushed out the background, I’m able to answer her question more succinctly:  I listen to those who have earned my trust.

Do you feel the same?