ARE THESE ONLINE NOBODIES THE NEW SOMEBODIES? Thousands Might Follow You on Twitter Yet You May Have No Real Influence over Them. Philip Delves Broughton Spots People Who Hold Sway in the Real and Virtual Worlds

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Byline: Philip Delves Broughton

THE internet was meant to change our idea of influence, drawing it away from the few and distributing it among the many. And while it is that true more people have access to the vast online community through viral sensations and Twitter followings, real influence seems to remain stubbornly in a few hands.

To test the nature of online influence, the American magazine Fast Company has just launched the Influence Project. Anyone who signs on is given a link by the magazine which they can send out to their network. The more people who click on the link, the greater your influence. The winner will appear on the magazine's cover later this year. Sounds simple but it's carefully constructed not to give big fish a head start.

Someone with 100,000 Twitter followers, for example, who gets 100 people to sign up scores less than someone with 150 followers who gets 100 people to sign up. The purpose is to weed out those who command vast but meaningless online tribes from those whose followers will actually do what they tell them.

The experiment also forces us to distinguish between power, influence, expertise and popularity, vital for anyone in business. Power, for example, does not equate with influence. William Hague may be powerful but Jamie Oliver is influential. Influence means you can affect the behaviour of others, that people watch what you do and heed your advice or mimic you.

The most influential businessperson in the world today is often said to be Apple's Steve Jobs, because his actions are followed with such breathless interest. The CEO of Exxon may command a larger balance sheet and greater resources but his is a brute power. We have little choice about the oil we buy. Apple's products are a choice, a habit and a lifestyle. Jobs does not Tweet or blog but he does have enormous influence over consumer behaviour.

Similarly with New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell -- his books and ideas are among the most widely read and shared over the past decade, yet he mostly shuns new media. His writing is devoured by people in a range of industries and jobs. Thus his professional status belies his extraordinary influence.

Andreas Weigend, who created many of the behavioural hooks on Amazon, attributes Gladwell's influence to his ability to push whatever he deems interesting on a welcoming public. …