Has 'Fast Company' Pulled A Fast One On Social Media Influence?

Story-tellers in today's social media milieu seem to have fallen into the trap of 'working' a story more than 'telling' the story.  Interesting angles have always been the mainstay of good journalism, but when a story's end play is whether or not it can 'go viral,' that's when we start to lose focus of what's really important. Critics believe that's the case with a debate brewing over whether or not Fast Company is playing fast and loose with 'influencers.'

Mark BordenMark BordenFast Company's experiment titled 'The Influence Project' seems to have influenced its critics more than the readers it was hoping to rope into a viral campaign to expand its readership. While FC's senior editor Mark Borden touts a milestone of 6,000 people signing up for the project in less than 24 hours, the critics from SF Weekly, the Huffington Post, TechCrunch, Search Engine Land have been cyberventillating in a rush to undermine the project's premise and intent.

The Influence Project Web site screen shotThe Influence Project Web site screen shot


The Influence Project was a byproduct of an idea Borden conceived back in May pertaining to the digital ad and marketing shop Mekanism who boasted its capability of making anything go viral. This prompted him to ask the firm if they could create a 'unpaid' viral campaign for Fast Company. After several dismissed campaign proposals, Borden and Mekanism settled on The Influence Project.

Mekanism then created an analytical platform that claimed to be able to track the 'influence' of folks entrenched in the daily workings of the social media space. In turn, Fast Company would compensate by providing the agency with a major publicity bump.

While always 'couching' the project in terms of 'an experiment' - it appears that Fast Company was its first critic and didn't take the project as seriously as some of the more-heated critiques to follow.


ALEXIS TSOTSISALEXIS TSOTSISPerhaps the harshest of all the naysayers was SFWeekly's Alexis Tsotsis. She jumped into the fray with both feet and actually registered for the 'experiment.'

She then accused Fast Company of using its readers as "guinea pigs" and labeled the project something comparable to "Amway" that "tricks one's friends into pimping generic products."    

Tsotsis cuts closer to the digital nerve of the case by dissecting Mekanism's goal of creating a "meta viral experiment wrapped in editorial." "Nothing should be 'wrapped in editorial' except editorial, and especially not some lead-generating link-bait pyramid scheme," she asserts. "And FYI, Mekanims, it is very, very difficult to make things go viral, so you might be careful using  the term so loosely in your hard sell," she adds.


Danny SullivanDanny SullivanDanny Sullivan who has spent the majority of his career in search engine optimization and analyzing Google's ubiquitous influence over our lives was quick to poke holes in Fast Company's 'experiment.'

"It's fair to say that some of the most influential people on the Web aren't going to take the time to register in a project, to begin with. I mean, they're influential! As part of being influential, they're probably busy doing the things that made them influential in the first place, not worrying about proving their influence," he says.


Courtney Boyd MyersCourtney Boyd MyersSeeing too many flies in the ointment to count, HuffPo's Courtney Boyd Myers questions whether social networking has replaced Reality TV? "Will you spam your friends, tweet your followers, and update your status incessantly to be considered 'influential?'"- and adds that if " 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?"


Michael ArringtonMichael ArringtonOthers including Michael Arrington from TechCrunch have jumped onto Fast Company's gnawed-over carcass by inferring FC might be hypocritical in their stance pertaining to 'influence.' In a 2008 feature posted by FC's Clive Thompson, titled "Is the Tipping Point Toast?" - Arrington believes this to be a 'telling' piece because it showed him "how there's no such thing as influencers anyway."

In that article Thompson interviewed Duncan Watts about his research pertaining to virility and his theory that 'targeted viral campaigning' may be ultimately less effective than 'good old mass marketing.'

While Watts does favor traditional vs. Web 2.0 marketing, it certainly isn't Fast Company's manifesto against viral marketing or how influence is generated today - nor does it present them as hypocrites. It was Thompson's insightful interview of one thought-leader and his presentation of one side of the coin. And back in 2008, viral campaigns were really just beginning to take shape anyway.

Which brings us back to Borden's original precept. "The project is an experiment." It's a learning process that according to Borden is "and hopefully a fun way to take a look at the wild, unwieldy, imperfect and certainly fun world of social media."

Social Media is a full spectrum of the best and worst in human nature. Influence in its purest form is having something to say and allowing others to appreciate its source. At the other end of the continuum, its basest components will allow many to work the system to their advantage. But in the long run, those pursuits of fame are short-lived, hence the over-worked Warhol belief that everyone can be famous - it just depends on the expiration date!

Borden did not pull any punches in his description of this 'experiment.' He was very clear when he stated, " we didn’t give guidance on how people should pursue their influence goals. Some people may engage in deception to get others to click on their link, some may use tactics that feel like spam to boost their results," he says.

Does this undermine his and Mekanism's efforts to measure influence? Is this more about 'working' the story versus 'telling' it? Possibly yes. But guess what, if you can't see through those tactics at the end of the end of the day -  then shame on you - because you have only yourself to blame for being duped.

No, I don't' think Fast Company is pulling a 'fast one' over on anybody. After all, they were able to get some of the major blogs in the land to wake up, take notice and write about it. Not bad, for a day's work! Viral or not!

Jul 9, 2010
by Anonymous


I still think it was brilliant. Look at the conversation - the engagement - the hopeful expectation of thousands of social media enthusiasts. It was a game. A fun game.

Jul 9, 2010
by Anonymous

Interesting Concept, but Lame for the Long Run

This is another example of the old PR adage that any publicity is good, even bad publicity. Whether you love the idea or hate it, you are talking about it. I think Fast needs to think a little in terms of the long term effects of this intriguing, yet very stupid IMHO, campaign.

Jul 9, 2010
by Anonymous

agree.. "The Sky is Falling!!"

I think FastCompany got the buzz but like the #skittlez incident.. also got a black eye.