influential people

Recently someone microblogged: “Who are the most influential people on Google+? I’m compiling a list.” All wise-cracks about the idea of “the most influential people on Google+” aside, this question got me thinking: what does it mean for someone to be “influential”, and why do people spend so much time obsessing about it?

The popular media is over-wrought with lists like these: the 20 most powerful people in Hollywood; the 10 most powerful technology entrepreneurs; the 20 most influential women in the media; the 50 most influential musicians of the last 20 years; and so on. Anyone that spends even a moment reflecting on these pop-culture lists realizes that they are meaningless in-bred narcissistic exercises usually produced by a tiny set of editors who imagine their knowledge and power in the world-at-large to be much more expansive than it actually is. But the popularity of these lists in the public imagination begs a much more interesting question: what is real influence in the world? What kind of influence should we aspire to, admire, and seek to emulate? Why is it that “influence” is something that matters so much to us as human beings?

Probably the most obvious current-day example of “joke” influence or “false” influence would be Paris Hilton. Paris Hilton has massive name recognition. A lot of people pay attention to what she does and says. I’m not sure that many people consider her an “authority” of any kind. She certainly hasn’t used her name-recognition to introduce any mass changes in the way people think or the way they live in the world. Maybe she could, but maybe she couldn’t… we will probably never know. Do you want to be “influential” like Paris Hilton?

On the opposite side, there are people like Michael Servetus. This is the dude whose writing, thoughts, and philosophies formed the foundation of the Unitarian Church. I’ll bet you didn’t know that! I’ll tell you something else: there are a lot of Unitarians who don’t know that. Whereas the branch of Christianity founded by John Calvin is called “Calvinism” and the branch of Christianity founded by Martin Luther is called “Lutheranism”, poor Michael Servetus gets to be the father of Unitarianism. Maybe people thought “Servetusism” just didn’t roll off the tongue. In any case, his beliefs and philosophies have influenced a huge number of people for centuries, formed the basis for an entire religious philosophy… but he has no name recognition. In a way, he is the opposite of Paris Hilton: all accomplishment, no credit. Would you rather be “influential” like Michael Servetus, or Paris Hilton?

There are more modern examples like him, as well. Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web. He literally came up with the idea of using the internet to display documents that would be connected to one another by links, and he wrote the very first web page. This is a technology that massively impacts the lives of millions of people every day, almost every modern business, and has completely changed the way that the modern world operates. But only the serious computer geeks know his name.

In the pop-culture music world, there is a similar phenomenon. Do you know who Max Martin is? He is an extremely influential music-writer. He wrote a lot of songs that the Backstreet Boys are famous for performing (including “I want It That Way”), a lot of songs that Britney Spears is famous for performing (including “Baby One More Time”), and a lot of songs that Celine Dion is famous for performing (including “That’s the Way It Is”). But if you ask most people on the street who is more influential in the music world, Britney Spears or Max Martin, most people will respond, “Max who?” So that leaves open the question, who would you rather be “influential” like? Would you rather be Max or Britney?

Consider yet a different case, of John Montague, 4th Earl of Sandwich. This is the dude that the sandwich is named after. Yes, the thing you eat. Talk about influencing people’s day-to-day lives! Think about the number of people every minute who utter the phrase “I’d like a sandwich!” Obviously, this guy was influential, right? Or was he? He didn’t invent the idea of putting meat between bread, he just made it popular. And most people who order a “sandwich” today know nothing about the person: most of them probably don’t even know that the word “sandwich” refers to a person. So, would you want to be influential like Lord Sandwich?

Then there are people like Andy Warhol. Everybody has heard of the name Andy Warhol, and everyone knows he was famous for being a popular artist and for being outlandish. Most people have a sense that his work was “important” because it “changed art” in some way or other. Now, of course, if you are interested in popular culture or art history, then you can probably go on talking for days about his place in history, the impact he has had, and all of the artists and artistic movements since his time that he has had a huge impact on. And he absolutely has had a huge impact on modern art. Yet most people—the “common person” that people like to refer to all the time—would be hard-pressed to come up with a way that the things Andy Warhol did affected their lives. There is no term or thing that connects to people’s every day lives that Andy is responsible for. (At least, not in the same way that sandwiches do!!) He didn’t invent anything to make people’s lives easier, and no laws or religious beliefs have been changed as a result of his work. So he is clearly a well known figure and has impacted an aspectof humanity… but in some ways, that aspect is very, very limited. Limited to pop-culture students, artists, and art history geeks. So if you had to choose, would you rather be influential like Lord Sandwich (your name is on the lips a millions of Americans every day!) or like Andy Warhol (you are given credit within a small community for changing the nature of an “art” that has no real practical impact on the world)?


It’s a tough choice, isn’t it?

But I think about these people, and all of the people like them, and it makes me really feel how ridiculous it is to think that someone is “influential” because of the number of followers they have on Twitter, or the number of people who have them in their circles on Google+. It makes me realize how ridiculous it is to list the most “influential musicians” based on how many records they’ve sold or the most “influential business people” based on how popular their products are. Everyone seems to fetishize the idea of being “influential” without having any clue what it really means, or why it is a good thing to be.

Sure, there are a few clear-cut cases of influence that combine every aspect I’ve mentioned above: Einstein, Gandhi, Jesus, and the like. There are people who have massively changed the world, and whose names everyone knows, and who have changed the way people live on a day-to-day basis. But this list is absurdly small. Aside from these “clear cut” cases, who are the people that we really should admire for their “influence”? Who’s influence matters? Are you really influential just because a million people read your tweet? Or a billion people know your name? Or your music video has been viewed a trillion times? Is that something to respect? Or admire? Or aspire to?

I’m not trying to answer this question for you. I only hope that when you get excited about the next list you read of the Most Influential Teens This Year, or the next time some website tells you how “influential” you are based on your number of Facebook friends and twitter followers, you give pause for a moment and think about all of the lists that aren’t made, and all of the other kinds of influence there are in the world to aspire to.