Power player: US pop sensation Taylor Swift answered the Twitter call for help from Sydney's Belvoir St Theatre to use one of her songs in a production. Christopher Polk Share on twitter Share on Google Plus by Caitlin Fitzsimmons When Jim Morrison sang “they got the guns but we got the numbers” there was no social media. It was 1968, after all. But in 2015 the lyrics are a perfect metaphor for the uneasy relationship between power and social media.
It is widely acknowledged that social media is a powerful force but hotly disputed whether individuals hold power through social media. A common refrain is that it’s influence rather than power.
Journalist and author Anne Summers has long reflected on the difference and recently ran a masterclass on power. “If you have power you’re able to change things and you have the ultimate ability to make something happen, whereas with influence you have to try to get the people with the power to do something,” Summers says. “I’d say that power is exerted downwards and influence is applied upwards.”
Summers says there’s very little evidence of anyone exerting actual power on social media, but suggests US celebrity Kim Kardashian comes as close to it as anyone. Kardashian has 45 million followers on Instagram, 35 million on Twitter and 26 million on Facebook. It’s not just that her numbers are impressive; when she speaks, people listen and act.
I just emailed Twitter to see if they can add an edit feature so that when u misspell something u don't have to delete & repost Let's see...
— Kim Kardashian West (@KimKardashian) July 25, 2015 Influence still counts In July Kardashian posted the following Tweet: “I just emailed Twitter to see if they can add an edit feature so that when u misspell something u don’t have to delete & repost Let’s see …” Half an hour later, Twitter co-founder and interim chief executive Jack Dorsey replied: “Great idea! We’re always looking at ways to make things faster and easier.” A month later Kardashian’s original tweet had generated nearly 40,000 retweets and more than 83,000 favourites.
Perhaps Kardashian was still wielding influence rather than power, since changing Twitter’s functionality is not directly within her control. Not everyone sees a difference between power and influence, anyway. Certainly, many on The Australian Financial Review Magazine’s overt, covert and cultural power lists should, on this strict definition, be classed as influential rather than powerful.
“They’re very similar concepts,” says Clifford Rosenberg, managing director of LinkedIn in Australia, New Zealand and south-east Asia.
@KimKardashian great idea! We're always looking at ways to make things faster and easier.
— Jack (@jack) July 25, 2015 The company seems to use the terms interchangeably; it has an invitation-only Influencer program for blogging, while it calls its most viewed members Power Profiles. Published in August, its 2015 Power Profiles in Australia included the likes of Andrew Penn from Telstra Corp in the CEO category and Pip Marlow, the managing director of Microsoft Australia, in the technology category.
Rosenberg says all the Power Profile users make regular contributions to the site, whether long-form blogging or short status updates. “It gives them the ability to attract followers interested in what they have to say, and once they’ve got the audience they have the ability to have a social impact on the audience and the people following them. It works hand in hand.”
Naomi Simson, founding director of experience-focused gift website RedBalloon, is one of LinkedIn’s global Influencers, with more than 880,000 followers, and also one of its Australian 2015 Power Profiles. She’s a prolific blogger and Twitter user. Like Summers, Simson sees social media as a conduit for influence rather than power.
“Power is the ability to force an outcome, versus the power to influence or add to a conversation that may ultimately lead to an outcome,” Simson says. “Look at the Adam Goodes campaign or how quickly people changed their profile pics on Facebook with rainbows to support gay marriage.”
Permission granted, @BelvoirSt . Good luck with your opening night :)
— Taylor Swift (@taylorswift13) August 4, 2015 Both are examples of how social media can spread ideas and influence culture but stop short of power. Goodes returned to play for the Sydney Swans heartened by the outpouring of support from his team and the community, but it’s debatable whether the social media support made the key difference and he later retired anyway. And laws enabling same-sex marriage are yet to pass in Australia.
Direct action As people switch on to the way social media can make their voices heard, companies, governments and individuals frequently find themselves on the receiving end of social media campaigns. Witness Destroy the Joint’s campaign to force Alan Jones (9 on our overt power list) to apologise to Julia Gillard over his “her father died of shame” remark in 2012. Then-opposition leader Tony Abbott and media commentator Andrew Bolt also condemned the comments and Jones apologised publicly. In August social media played a role in the Melbourne protests that led to the cancellation of a planned operation targeting visa fraud in public places, Operation Fortitude.
As long ago as 2009 Cadbury Australia stopped putting palm oil in its chocolate in response to social media pressure. More recently, South Australian dairy brand Fleurieu ditched its halal certification and a lucrative contract with Emirates after being targeted by anti-halal groups. But the company later reinstated it, regretting a “rushed and incorrect decision” that was counter to its multicultural values.
In August, the Belvoir St Theatre in Sydney successfully used social media to influence someone in power, specifically American pop star Taylor Swift. In its play Seventeen , a cast of 70-year-olds play 17-year-olds on their last day of school. The septuagenarians had spent weeks rehearsing a scene with a performance of Swift’s chart-topping tune Shake It Off while waiting for official permission to use it from the song’s publishers.
A few days before opening night they got the news they were dreading: permission denied. After spending the weekend stewing over the options, Belvoir’s resident director Anne-Louise Sarks decided to make a last‑ditch appeal via social media. On the Tuesday morning, Sydney time, she fired up Twitter to lobby Swift using the hashtag #greygrey4taytay and enlisted her networks, including star performers Yael Stone, Tim Minchin and Nicole da Silva.
A few hours later Swift responded: “Permission granted, @BelvoirSt . Good luck with your opening night :)”
Swift held all the power – it was her decision to make – and with 63 million Twitter followers, she held all the social media clout as well. Sarks believes it played to her favour that it was a genuine request, not an orchestrated campaign. “I wasn’t trying to sell anyone a thing, I just needed the song for the show to work and I had all the evidence and sincerity of the show behind me.
“At the time all I wanted was the song to open my show the next day – at that point I had nothing to lose,” Sarks says. “What’s funny is that people would like to emulate this because it was so positive for the show but I don’t think there’s any way to manipulate something like this.”
Sarks is adamant that getting support from the wider twittersphere, including but not confined to star performers whose tweets Swift might notice, was essential. “We needed momentum, and the excitement and interest of people to make it work,” she says. “We were a trending topic in Australia that day and I don’t think a one-on-one request would have worked; I’m sure she gets millions of people tweeting her all the time.”
The links between a person’s social media following and their success elsewhere can amplify their influence. In June Swift wrote an open letter to Apple, posted on her blog, criticising it for not paying artists for a three-month free streaming trial. The company quickly reversed its policy. It’s a good bet it was mindful not only of the millions who buy Swift’s music, but also of her large following on social media.
Made to measure While social media has influence through collective action, individuals can also be influencers. And there is no shortage of tools purporting to measure it, from public-facing apps such as Klout, which gives social media users a score between one and 100, to Google’s artificial intelligence around authorship within a project called Knowledge Vault.
Sydney-based BrandData measures the influence of brands and individuals across websites, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube. BrandData chief executive Georgie Summerhayes says the information is useful for brands to compare themselves with competitors, or to measure up potential partners. Since followers can be bought, BrandData measures influence purely through engagement, pulling data on a daily basis.
The results don’t necessarily correlate to real-world power: the day AFR Magazine ran the numbers in August, the then-prime minister, Tony Abbott, was outclassed by bands 5 Seconds of Summer and AC/DC, model Emily Sears, comedy duo Hamish & Andy, chef Hayden Quinn, footballer Jarryd Hayne, fashion blogger Sarah Ellen and Naomi Simson.
Abbott was, however, top of the pops in BrandData’s politician category, not bad for a man who twice dismissed social media as “electronic graffiti”. Social media expert Laurel Papworth says Abbott’s high social media score is an example of how traditional powerbrokers often attract an audience on social media by virtue of their wider profile. She warns that this sort of social media power is not necessarily as enduring as the influence earned from being part of a community. Power brought from outside social media can make someone a divisive figure, and it can also evaporate when they leave office.
“True influence comes from building relationships and good content, while power is often the thing that’s pushed,” Papworth says. “Power often takes pushy, opinionated stances and that can be quite divisive so it can finish abruptly and people can turn on them; this is where you see instances of people imploding on social media. Influence is often built more gradually in any community, online or offline, and built around a gentle recommendation.”
Powerful people on social media are also a lightning rod for parody accounts, especially on Twitter: @NotMTurnbull has more than 6600 followers, a respectable number considering the global average is closer to 200, though tiny compared with the 435,000 followers of Turnbull's official verified profile ; Greens Senator Scott Ludlam has parody accounts dedicated to both his hair and his socks ; Taylor Swift has inspired the popular @SwiftOnSecurity account that tweets technology advice using the image and tone of the pop star. In fact, Swift has spawned more than a dozen fan sites and parody sites – fortunately her real account has Twitter’s blue verification tick so Belvoir St Theatre could lobby the right person.
It’s just lucky they didn’t want to use a Jim Morrison song.
TREND SETTERS BUSINESS AND COMMUNITY LEADERS
Naomi Simson founding director RedBalloon
887,837 followers on LinkedIn Influencer platform
Laurel Papworth social media consultant
55,300 Twitter followers
Ged Kearney president ACTU
8540 Twitter followers
Steve Baxter technology entrepreneur and investor
7683 Twitter followers
Michael O'Connor national secretary CFMEU
3050 Twitter followers
Janine Allis founder Boost Juice
108,571 followers on LinkedIn Influencer
Darryn Lyons mayor of Geelong
1.13 million Twitter followers
Pip Marlow managing director Microsoft Australia
9688 Twitter followers
Suzi Dafnis CEO Australian Businesswomen's Network
10,000 Twitter followers
Rosie Batty 2015 Australian of the Year
15,000 Twitter followers
Malcolm Turnbull Prime Minister
435,000 Twitter followers; 168,127 Facebook followers
Tony Abbott, former prime minister
558,000 Twitter followers; 459,171 Facebook followers
Daniel Andrews Victorian Premier
20,600 Twitter followers; 111,025 Facebook followers
Anthony Albanese federal shadow minister
95,500 Twitter followers; 66,977 Facebook followers
Bill Shorten federal Opposition Leader
116,000 Twitter followers; 97,056 Facebook followers
Scott Ludlam joint deputy leader of the federal Greens
52,900 Twitter followers; 107,746 Facebook followers
Kevin Rudd former prime minister
1.59 million Twitter followers; 149,922 Facebook followers
Tanya Plibersek federal Deputy Opposition Leader
104,000 Twitter followers; 130,251 Facebook followers
Julie Bishop federal Foreign Minister
148,000 Twitter followers; 92,645 Facebook followers
Joe Hockey former federal Treasurer
16,000 Twitter followers; 36,075 Facebook followers
Sources : BrandData; independent research
* These people were ranked by Branddata as the influencers with the most engaged audience in the above categories, based on August 2015 data. BrandData measures engagement with a brand or person across their website, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube accounts. The AFR Magazine verified follower numbers separately, as at September.
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The AFR Magazine Power issue is out Friday September 25 inside The Australian Financial Review .