Is Social Media Influence Building a Zero-Sum Game?

This past week I published what has become my most widely read and re-shared post ever, and in many ways I think my most important post ever: “Your Google Plus Network Is More Powerful Than You Know.”



One paragraph of that social media influence post has sparked some pushback from some very thoughtful readers. The best example of this occurred in the comment thread of a Google+ share of my post by David Amerland.

Leland LeCuyer posed the challenge :

leland-lecuyerThanks to +Gideon Rosenblatt, I’ve been in the depths of reading and trying to absorb the wisdom contained in David Carse’s bestseller Finite and Infinite Games. Obtaining more useful results from my Google searches as well as rising to the top of other people’s search results smacks of what Carse would label a “finite game.” Useful? Definitely. Important? Only so far as you take the game seriously. Those who recognize that this is only a game do not invest so much gravity in its outcome.

But I do have another reason for commenting on my neighbor’s post. It seems that +Mark Traphagen is recommending that I prune my Google+ circles in order to improve my chances when playing the finite, all too finite, game of search optimization. Under the subtitle Be choosy whom you circle Traphagen warns:

Mother used to tell you that you’re known by the company you keep. Of course, she was right, but in this case you need to be aware that Google knows you by the company you keep. The Google patents connected to Author Rank and semantic search inform us that Google is looking to measure individual authority not only by what the individual does and produces, but by those with whom he or she interacts the most. Cultivate relationships with the influencers in your topics.

I have no basis for disagreeing with Traphagen about this — after all, he’s an expert at this game — but my intuition screams that this can’t be right. Should we really choose who we circle based on the fact that it might harm or help my SEO status? I suppose if Jesus could be criticized for befriending prostitutes and tax collectors it should not come as a surprise that anyone might be judged by the company he or she keeps. Yet if any one of us hopes someday, somehow, to counter confirmation bias, we need to step outside the echo chamber of people who share our beliefs and prejudices. To that end I have intentionally circled people I don’t agree with or, frankly, cannot stand, just so I can be assaulted by at least a few contretemps to my own too settled opinions.

Perhaps I am misreading what Traphagen wrote. Or reading too much into it. Though, more likely, the opposite: that I’m reading too little into it because it’s a game I prefer not to play.

David Amerland’s response:

david-amerland+Leland LeCuyer it’s a fine line we tread between the truth of the argument you have just stated that stands as an offline role model and the verisimilitude of our online existence. While the two are converging in nuance they have not yet achieved quite the singularity we want.

However, what Mark suggests is absolutely true and the nuance is not far from the mark. Circling people you do not agree with in order to be challenged is fine, they are likely to bear, even tangentially upon what you are interested in and though their points of view may differ their subject matter may not. Search already has a similar algorithm programmed to aid serendipitous discoveries that displays just that kind of thinking behind it.

However, were you to, as an example, circle people who talk about a vast diverse number of subjects that range from Lego Bricks to breeding crustaceans your online existence is either unfocused an therefore of low value (debatable, I know, but bear with me) or else it displays a spammer’s signature circling people willy-nilly in order to spam their streams.

Being selective is not the same as being homogeneous., quite the contrary as a matter of fact. Care and caution in associations is now as important online as it is offline. The ultimate aim, paradoxiaclly, is not to game the system but quite the opposite, to achieve a greater degree of authenticity.

My response (written and published about the same time as David’s, so not interacting with his necessarily):

mark-traphagen+Leland LeCuyer this is excellent pushback; I really appreciate it!

You’re the second perceptive reader who has asked that question about that paragraph in my post. Unfortunately I don’t have editing rights on the site on which it was posted or I might add some disclaimers to that paragraph. I may go back and at least do so in the comments.

Let me deal with the most direct issue first. I did not at all mean to direct that anyone should only circle those who will build one’s influence in one’s key topics. By no means! I would be a bad example of that myself. I follow people for all sorts of reasons, and not only because they are “good for my SEO.” My social networks are not just where I do business; they are also communities that I spend a lot of time in, and I want those communities to be populated by some diversity, to keep me sharp and bring more, frankly, fun!

But…I do not shy away from the fact that I do build my overall following strategically and intentionally. And that doesn’t have to be even the majority of who I follow. Google isn’t so stupid that they just look at a raw vote (“Hmmm, Mark follows a lot of people who like anime, so he must be authoritative on anime!”). Rather, they watch whom I interact with and who most interacts with me. Most likely my anime friends and I are not going to spend a lot of time here interacting on each other’s anime posts (I don’t even have any!).

So say I want to be influential about Google Authorship. It’s not a matter of having only Authorship authorities in my circles, or even a majority of that. Rather it’s important that I follow the top influencers on that topic — people like +AJ Kohn and +Mike Arnesen —  and that we interact with each other.

I could have been more clear about all that in my post, and will probably write a future post bringing that clarity.

As to it being a “gaming” of social networks…I think that’s a prejudicial way of putting it. Do some treat it merely like a game? Absolutely, and I have no time for them. Rather done properly I think such intentional network-building exactly mirrors what people who want to be influential do in real life. Savvy business people join associations and meetups in their field. They follow up on business cards they collect at industry conferences. They build relationships with other influencers in their field who can introduce them to others who can help them. Etc., etc.

My intent is not to play a game just to have bragging rights that I can get to the top of Google’s popularity charts or outrank others in search results. I’m passionate about the things I think about and write about. I write and speak and converse about those things because I want to learn more about them and also help others to understand them. And yes, I want to be an influencer in the overall discussion of my topics of interest. If that’s a “game,” so be it. But I think it’s one of the most important games I can play, and I spend way more time at being good at it than I do kicking a ball around or fighting zombies on a video screen.

Leland’s next response:

leland-lecuyerBefore I reply to you, +David Amerland, I feel obliged to add something to what I previously wrote. I may have mistakenly left the reader with the impression that I disagree with +Mark Traphagen or, at least, with what Traphagen wrote in this article. To the contrary, it is a brilliant piece of analysis that is well worth reading. I cherry picked the solitary point that I could dispute against and ran with it.

As to what you wrote, David, you are correct to distinguish between selectivity and homogeneity. I was mistaken to confound the two. I also greatly appreciate your closing statement, because I couldn’t possibly say it any better: The ultimate aim, paradoxiaclly, is not to game the system but quite the opposite, to achieve a greater degree of authenticity.

Like +Gideon Rosenblatt, [referencing a brief comment by Gideon not reproduced here) I too struggle every day avoiding getting sucked into playing a role that has been predetermined rather than remaining true to my genius (as Carse would say) or my authentic self (as David would say).

My final response:

mark-traphagenTHIS is the discussion I had hoped my post would generate somewhere. I am so delighted it has happened, and not surprised it has happened among the network of +David Amerland.

I have not yet read Carse’s book, but I just read the Wikipedia summary (isn’t that enough in the Internet age? ;-). So now that I have some rudimentary understanding of his finite vs. infinite games concept, I would say that my personal aim is to explore what Google networks create as part of an infinite game. Others will read my post and stop at “how can I use this to beat my competition?” — a finite game. It’s not for me to judge that; I just think they’re missing something so much bigger and more exciting.

So utilizing your Google network does not of necessity have to be for finite purposes. Rather, it can be an accelerated launching pad for the dissemination and organic growth of infinite game ideas.

The discussion continued beyond that last comment. To read more, visit the original post on Google+.

Also, Marty Smith, a web marketer for whom I have the utmost respect, has pushed back at me on his post “SEO Social Media Singularity Is Near.” I responded to him there.

Postscript: David Amerland has helpfully provided a link to a PDF of notes on the book Finite and Infinite Games by James P. Carse mentioned in this post.

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  1. Mark – you’ll see that I just approved a number of comments for your post that were all very, very positive.

    Let me comment on the point of dipute regarding social media influence and SEO. At the end of the day, it all comes down to your objective for being active in social media. If you have no reason to be influential, it’s one thing. But if you are active in social media for business – where influence (whether it be perceived or real) matters, it makes sense that you’d want to associate yourself with and align your brand with leaders in your industry. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t follow most people that follow you back, but it does mean that you should perhaps question a little bit more who you circle. After all, Google Plus has the same maximum 5,000 circle rule that Facebook has, so use those 5,000 circles wisely and you’ll be fine.

    Your post obviously goes a lot deeper than discussion of the above point, but I just wanted to chime in.

    Thanks again for everything you do Mark! As I said in my first Windmill Networking book on LinkedIn, “Something trivial to you could be a godsend to someone else somewhere.” Never underestimate the power of your knowledge – and the sharing of it!


  2. Thanks Neal, well said. Even while waxing philosophical on this, we need to keep coming back to the practical applications (“how should we then live?”).

    And yes, saw the comments at WMN. My phone email alerts starting pinging so rapidly I thought I was under a hacker attack!


  3. Too funny Mark! It is a sign of growth, but we are simply getting both more traffic and more engagement from said traffic as the quantity and quality of our content increases! Your recent post has just helped raise the bar even higher for all of us! 😉



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