Thoughts on influence

We go through our lives leaving traces, we affect people around us – as we are also affected by them. We have an effect on our environment, our home, our work environment or our group of peers we surround ourselves with. Likewise we are also influenced by exterior factors, people, peers and environment which in turn will have an effect on how we perceive the world around us, as well as shaping our individual opinions and views.

This natural state of affairs is a far cry from one of the phenomenons brought forth by social media platforms, which is the social media influencer. Such influencers are touted as being the next generation of brand ambassadors that can help a brand to become more famous and increase consumption in society through social media. They are online personalities with a large number of followers, across one or several social media platforms such as YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, or personal blogs. What makes these influencers so successful appears to be their capacity to engage with users and develop a level of trust. Their influence consists in the fact that their ideas and their behaviour will not only be positively evaluated by their followers, but also imitated…

Naturally, the world of arboriculture does not exist in a vacuum, and is consequently also effected by such trends observed in a broader societal context. There are a large number of people out there uploading content which is shaping people’s views and attitudes. Some of them are obviously acting as brand ambassadors in the sense that they are promoting specific products, whilst others are promoting their own personal brand. Oftentimes the distinction between the two can become blurred. This is also true of some printed publications targeting the arb community, where the distinction between paid content, i.e. advertising, opinion and fact is very hard to recognise.

One of the issues I have with this trend is what foundation the opinions offered by said influencers have, what are their actual credentials? For all I know I may be dealing with a highly knowledgeable person, with broad-based skill set founded in experience as well a theoretical knowledge – but conversely, it might be someone with a mediocre skill-set, but with a willingness to invest time and effort to package it nicely and to put a positive spin on it to create a illusion of competence. In a virtual setting it can be very hard to distinguish between the two. This reminds me of a paper written by Antje Schrupp, a German social and political scientist, titled Female Authority – or How to Oppose Power. In this, she offers an interesting take on authority, which she defines as a quality of relationship. She postulates that authority has to be negotiated between two individuals, and further that can authority only be granted, it cannot be demanded, as this would be exerting power over the other person.

With this in mind, I might chose to grant a person authority in one specific area, based upon our interactions, whilst they in turn might grant me authority in another, the kicker being though that this can only happen based upon one on one, real-life interaction. If such an interaction does not happen and a person is granted authority, according to Schrupp, this does not make the person being offered the authority an authority, but rather a guru. I believe, due to the inherently indirect nature of interactions on social media platforms, this is exactly what is happening: these high-profile individuals are being placed upon a guru pedestal, where critical questioning or criticism becomes inconceivable due to their guru status.

If you add undisclosed commercial interests and a narrow foundation in regards to experience and competence, this can potentially have a highly adverse, if not even detrimental effect on the opinions in a group of peers or, in a larger context and if the clamouring becomes loud enough, on an entire industry.

Do not get me wrong, I do not want to blow this out of proportion, but I wish we could all just calm down a bit, not start hyperventilating about every new bit of kit or apparently revolutionary new technique that comes along, but engage in meaningful and measured discussion about the potential benefits as well as down-sides of the equipment or technique being considered. After all, in many ways it is not the influencers which are at fault here, but rather the way in which we interact with them, the credibility and weight their opinions garner – when hits and likes become a quasi-currency: “Six thousand likes can’t be wrong, this must be true!”

Having said all that, as I am writing this, I find myself questioning myself. A lot of what I have written might be construed to be applicable to the presenting I do or of treemagineers as a whole. However, to that I would respond that we have always gone to great lengths to communicate in an open and honest fashion, being transparent as to where commercial interests may lie, to disclose affiliations and to distinguish between the type of information being offered: is this representing one of the companies we are affiliated with, is it fact based upon credible evidence or is it opinion? Are we always successful in doing so? Probably not. Do we always strive for maximum possible transparency? Yes, we do.

I for one have very little interest in being a guru, as I believe that kind of position to be boring and limiting, after all, a guru cannot admit that he or she does not know something – as supposedly they know it all already. Further, I have no interest in influencing a person and impose my views on them: on the contrary, I value critical feedback and questions, as in this way I also continue to gain a deeper understanding of the issues being discussed. So rather than influencing people, offering handily packaged, pre-confectioned, byte-sized, apparent solutions, I would hope to be able to offer them mental (and physical) tools to be able to develop problem-solving solutions themselves. This strikes me as being more sustainable approach, which takes into account better the diversity of situations and personalities out there.

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