The Dots: Gravity and the Fabric of Influence

We wrote a book! The Dots is our examination of influence in the modern age. Through humor, a series of analogies to physics, a litany of pop culture references, and an algorithm to harness the power of influential people, it helps readers develop an actionable approach to influence. Plus, it has pictures! We'd love for you to read it all, so to get you started, here's the first chapter. Visit TheDotsBook.com to order the whole thing.

Chapter Three: Gravity and The Fabric of Influence

When we talk about influence, what we’re really talking about is the impact that one person, idea, or institution has on the decision making of others around them (without coercion or a really big stick).

An individual’s influence can be seen in the effect she has on her immediate social circles, but the depth and intensity of influence can obviously move well beyond a person’s immediate connections. In fact, it’s when influence starts to spread out into further and further connections, six degrees of separation and so on, that it takes on entirely new proportions. (Incidentally, this is where you’ll find Kevin Bacon.)

USING PHYSICS TO MODEL A THEORY OF INFLUENCE

We’ve begun to realize that it’s more effective to view influence in three dimensions than as a nebulous concept.

In our three-dimensional model, influence is analogous to gravity and its effects on the fabric of space-time. The size and mass of a celestial body can be considered as equivalent to the size and mass of a person’s influence, because in both cases, as the amount of mass or influence increases, the effect an object or person has on the bodies that surround it increases. In the case of a planet, that effect might be seen in the orbit of a communications satellite or a moon. In the case of people, that effect of influence is seen in the orbits of the people whose decisions are impacted by the influencer they gravitate toward.

In this model, the larger the person’s influence, the more he warps the area around him. In the case of gravity, objects warp the fabric of space-time in relationship to their mass; in the case of influence, we can call this the “fabric of influence.” The more influence a person has, the deeper the depression she creates in the fabric of influence, which starts to affect people further and further out from herself. For gravity, this depression is called a Gravity Well. For influence we’ll call this depression in the fabric an Influence Well.

Every person, idea, and one-hit-wonder creates its own distinct Influence Well, in the same way that every planet, star, and black hole creates its own distinct gravity well. In the case of gravity, objects are drawn down to the bottom of the gravity well toward the object creating it. In the case of influence, decisions are drawn down to the bottom of the Influence Well, toward the person or idea creating it. If a decision makes it to the bottom of an Influence Well, that decision gets directly influenced by whatever is creating that Influence Well.

ALLOWING THE COOL KIDS TO DEMONSTRATE

The difference between visualizing gravity and influence arises when you consider the stratification of arenas where influence can take place.

For example, take someone like Michelle Phan, a woman who has built an extremely impressive amount of fame from her YouTube video tutorials on the best ways to apply makeup and other beauty products. For those trapped in a coma for all of 2014, Michelle Phan was one of the key highlights of YouTube’s 2014 media blitz, which saw hundreds of versions of her face festooning billboards across the country. Her influence is almost completely exclusive to health and beauty products — a single layer of influence — but her impact in this arena is extremely deep. She sits atop the pinnacle of the world she plays in — the Martha Stewart of makeup, the Beyoncé of beauty supplies.

Consider this against the fame and influence of Tavi Gevinson, the young media powerhouse of Style Rookie and Rookie Mag, and newly minted Broadway actor. Gevinson is massively influential in the world of fashion, especially for teen girls. She is so influential, in fact, that she graced the cover of New York Magazine’s 2014 Fall Fashion issue — no small feat for even the most veteran figures in fashion. But where Gevinson’s influence begins to depart from Phan’s, and to take on greater texture, is with the addition of the other strata of influence that she impacts. Gevinson’s Rookie Mag is an online lifestyle magazine for young women that covers topics ranging from how to write a novel to music, jobs, relationships, and more. Rookie has become a sort of demonstration of the precocious identity of modern young women, and a source of empowerment for teen girls across the country. It is this drive to fight against being de ned by a single thing — a push against the one-dimensional definitions that the media have placed on women of the past — that starts to demonstrate how Gevinson’s influence takes a wider-reaching hold.

This is what separates Phan’s and Gevinson’s styles of influence — the diversity of areas where they’re influential and the number and types of people drawn into their Influence Wells.

While Michelle Phan may not present her fans with videos on how to handle sexual harassment at work or how to write a college essay, her fans are probably not turning to her for that kind of information. She’s a resource for beauty. However, it seems completely natural when Gevinson’s Rookie Mag offers advice for young women on these topics and more. Fans want Tavi to bring the broad view. They want her to explore new areas. Certainly there are limits to her range, but they probably relate more to the amount of content devoted to a given topic rather than to the topic itself. Fans wouldn’t want Rookie to turn into a health website, but if it covered something like “What It Was Like to Get an STI” or “How to Talk to Your Gyno” or even “Living with OCD,” they’d be interested. at’s because these are stories about the human condition, and Tavi has the latitude to go there and still remain influential.

LOOKING BEYOND THE NUMBERS

If we were looking at this comparison from a purely statistical perspective, Michelle Phan wins hands down. Tyson vs. Frazier. At the time of this writing, Michelle Phan has roughly 660K followers on Twitter to Gevinson’s roughly 300k. Phan has 1.7 million Instagram followers to Gevinson’s 214K. From this perspective, there is no contest. But anyone who works in media knows that reach alone isn’t the be-all and end-all.

When imagined in this three-dimensional model, the depth that Phan reaches in one stratum of social influence may be deeper than that of any of Gevinson’s — for example, Phan’s say in makeup and beauty products may carry more weight than Gevinson’s in fashion. But when you compound all the layers in which Gevinson carries influence — fashion, music, culture, art, lifestyle, etc. — you begin to understand why her overall social influence may be equal to or greater than Phan’s in terms of the number of decisions she has an impact on, even if it’s across fewer total individuals.

This of course is just an example — Michelle Phan could be the most in uential woman in America, although probably not — but it helps to demonstrate how in uence has texture and needs to be considered in a more holistic sense than simply looking at the number of Twitter or Instagram followers an individual has accrued. is nuance asks us to examine why we bring people into our lives, what motivates us to allow them occupancy in our attention space, and the ways in which we construct our mental images of them.

This way of visualizing influence gives us a model to begin to demonstrate the full context. It allows us to cut to the core of what influence is — the impact of decision making — and begin to compare one individual’s influence to another’s.

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