Economists and other people who use "archival data" love to make inferences from data. Archival data is otherwise known as behavioral data, like the kind you get on the web by watching what people do. Inferences are just guesses .... educated and otherwise.


Economists, in fact, don't see the relevance to speaking with people to find out what's in their minds because of their theory of "revealed preferences". That is, why ask someone what they think, just watch their behavior and that will reveal to you what they were thinking.
When I was trained in marketing research this type of approach was considered, well, quite a stretch. For most marketing concepts (except for purchase behavior or cold hard cash), what you're trying to measure is just a concept or idea. There is no one-to-one relationship between the concept and something you can measure. Instead, people take the hard data and imbue it with meaning.
So you might not find it surprising how perplexed I've become over the explosion of available data on the web and the inferences that are currently being made about archival data. The biggest sensation is how data can reveal how much influence and authority you have. Technorati, for example, has an "Authority Index" for measuring a blog's importance and authority. You can now find several website that will calculate your influence, how "hot" you are, etc., using Twitter data. It's really gotten out of hand.
I think most of these measures are going way beyond the data into something that borders on wishful thinking. Here's why.
Most people don't know this, but as an academic researcher, and one who had to publish to get tenure, the golden rule has not only been getting a lot of publications but also being cited by a lot of other researchers. The key indicator of this is the "citation index" .... or the number of the other people who have cited your research in their research. This citation index is basically the idea behind Google's rankings. You might think of this as equivalent to getting a lot of follower's on Twitter.
What academics love to do is imbue this index with meaning, such as a high index means a person's work is really important, or even innovative or, better yet, path breaking.
questionauthority.jpg The problem with this index is the incentives that call the meaning of the index into question. For example, you might cite somebody else's research because you found a flaw in it, or because you want to make your research look more scientific by citing someone else, or because you want to support a finding and need to find someone else who said it first (in academics, unlike the real world, you have to make sure what you say hasn't been said before). The point is that there are several reasons a person might cite the work of someone else that has nothing to do with how innovative, important, or path breaking it is.
So, you can see the problem I have when I hear about an Authority Index, for example. This index is defined as the number of blogs linking to a website within the last six months.
This is the same as a citation index. It's just a number (number of blogs linking to a website), which is then imbued with meaning (authority). By calling it "Authority", people will naturally think about how important the blog is, and how pathbreaking and innovative the ideas are. But nobody talks about the incentives that call this meaning into question.
The big deal these days is using the "retweet" and "follow" data in Twitter to measure how important and influential you are. For example, someone is now offering $125,000 in order to lock in a way to gain hundreds of thousands of new followers.
This is just a marketing ploy, of course. Nonetheless, the idea of having thousands of followers has taken on a grandiose meaning, well beyond the simple fact that it's just a simple number.
In fact, from what I've seen lately, I've received hundreds of followers who are basically scam artists where they are trying to get you to come to their twitter page where they'll show you how to make a million bucks on some gimmick. Hmm, are these the followers that will add to a number that other people will assume means my tweets are really valuable?
This problem of archival data and placing ideas on it has plagued marketers for a long time. There are ways of dealing with this, but that's not the point of this post. My purpose is just to make the statement that before believing what archival data means, we might all just pause a moment and remember that inferring ideas from archival data is a risky business and shouldn't be taken too seriously.
So, what do you think?
Is having more followers really a measure of how important and influential a person is? Do you use this as a "cue" that informs you about someone? Do you think people who retreet other's posts really believe they are influential? Do you change your behavior and do marketing in a completely different way (which is really a measure of influence) based on a high follower person's tweets?

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
image of Allen Weiss

Allen Weiss is the CEO and founder of MarketingProfs. He's also a longtime marketing professor and mentor at the University of Southern California, where he leads Mindful USC, its mindfulness center.