It’s undeniable that there are known names in the tech industry that large communities of people trust to pass on reliable information about products and solutions, provide how-tos and tips, and connect us to useful resources for common challenges. But, knowing who is really an authority, and knowing if and why you should trust that person’s opinion, isn’t always easy.
How do tech professionals become “experts”? How do we determine the value of a tech influencer’s opinion?
Think about it: the sheer accessibility of available information means we actually can find most of the data on our own to help us make decisions.
On the other hand, most of us admittedly suffer from information overload. We can find the info if we want to, but do we want to? Sometimes it’s just easier to relinquish our decision-making to someone we think knows better.
This is where influencers come in. Sometimes it’s just easier to trust a reliable voice than it is to do the research and analysis of a product on our own.
Who Is Considered an Influencer
In tech, we must take a different approach when choosing who to follow and whose opinion to trust than, say, movie lovers or foodies. More often than not, those of us in tech turn to “thought leaders” with attributes such as:
- Proven knowledge and success: One mighty example is AWS’ Jeff Barr, considered a mega-influencer.
- Engaged fan base: In the world of cloud, analyst and consultant Corey Quinn has built a community of followers on Twitter by actively engaging in conversation with the people who RT his opinions.
- Connectors of people: These individuals can draw links between disparate fields; for example, Elon Musk, CEO and Chairman of Tesla.
- Enthusiasts offering uplifting or motivational posts. As author, speaker, entrepreneur, and evangelist Guy Kawasaki notes in his bestselling book Selling the Dream, “Evangelism is the process of convincing people in your product or idea as much as you do. It means selling your dream by using fervor, zeal, guts, dream, and cunning…. Evangelism is the process of selling a dream.”
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Criticism of the Influencer Phenomenon
Still, with the number of people now considered “influencers,” IT professionals these days are looking to weed out the chaff and find the true experts, not those who are paid to advertise or those self-proclaimed experts who only pass on info without personal, deep hands-on knowledge of a technology. Without even being conscious of it, most of us wonder how much an influencer truly wants to help others be successful as opposed to just selling a product in which they have a vested interest.
Bottom line: Most of us are all feeling somewhat weary, inundated, and bored by the wealth of questionably biased information, aren’t we?
This isn’t a reason to do a massive unfollow on tech influencers. But it’s a good moment to at least pause and ask ourselves why we follow the influencers we do, why we trust their content, and what we in the tech industry can learn from the ways in which we adopt new technologies as a result of the recommendations of our peers, evangelists, “MVPs,” and “heroes.
Changing Trends in Transmission of Technical Know-How
To understand why tech influencers have become so popular, let’s examine the connection between open source and tech influencers and how people are in the process of becoming more important than brands.
One well-established trend in the tech development world is that people have increasingly turned to open source, leading to greater transparency. An agile culture has permeated the development process and shortening the time to market.
More remote work, led by the tech industry, is resulting in less watercooler talk and more reliance on objective thought leaders. According to Fortune Magazine, “Tech startup Gitlab has an all-remote employee base of 1,200, plus an exec dedicated to optimizing work without an office.”
We’re also seeing smaller and more focused interest groups and less Stack Overflow (SO) due to crowd overload and frequent impatience. SO is not as dominant as it used to be in setting trends and providing solutions, because it is too full, poorly curated, and has a prevailing toxic atmosphere. Responses to innocent questions are often “already answered” or inquiries posted are met with “wrong forum” knockdowns.
Two-way discussion platforms such as Reddit, HackerNews, Mattermost, and Slack are on the rise due to their informal culture, helpful advice, and intimate discussions.
We’re also seeing less text and observing the rise of digital platforms as dynamic media for knowledge dissemination. Chats, video, and audio content in the form of podcasts are trumping the written word, due to the possibility of multi-tasking. This is where the influencers of today are to be found. “Audio rich smartphones enable audio to compete with newspapers, apps, and websites on public transport for the first time and it makes routine tasks like walking the dog or exercising in the gym less boring and more productive” (Reuters’ Digital News Report 2019).
Micro-influencers are also shooting up the ratings. With only a few thousand followers, these influencers-on-the-rise can actually create more buzz for your buck than one mega-influencer with 100K followers.
What Motivates Technology Influencers
There are a number of possible motivators:
- Establishing technology standards for the latest device driver, product version, or communications protocol, or being a thought leader and a driver of usage/trends.
- Receiving kickbacks, including direct payment from an interested company to plug a brand (sponsored content) or market subliminally via product placement.
- The opportunity to increase name recognition and enhance a reputation by multiplying retweets, growing numbers of followers, and appearing high in search results. Typical examples are often open-source evangelists.
- Altruistic motives, from those looking to advance the industry. For example, Oleg Vishnepolsky, Daily Mail Global CTO, is described as possessing a large heart and always willing to go above and beyond the call of duty. As Kelsey Hightower, one of today’s most famous influencers at Google—but who never mentions Google—says, “Once you’ve found success, your next goal should be helping others do the same.”
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Choosing the Right Influencers to Follow
Do a Background Check
Check the influencers’ motivations. Consider the driving forces behind their opinions. Are they attempting to establish technology standards, receiving kickbacks, boosting their status, or driven by altruism? Demand validation of what you are reading by accessing more than one source and being aware that reviews can be bought or generated by bots to drive up the hit rate. Also, check out author credentials.
The dev world today is turning more and more to open source, so it’s easier than ever to determine who is a real contributor and who is simply puffing up a resume. For example, did this influencer really add a new device driver to Linux? I suppose you can verify by checking the person’s references and online bread crumbs, but also “buyer beware” that it’s not so difficult to exaggerate or outright post fraudulent info –people sometimes boldly do so.
Seek Out Communities
Build or join communities of people with the same interests and questions by seeking advice on forums such as Git, MatterMost, Slack channels, and even WhatsApp groups. Sadly, we may not be able to interact face-to-face at tech events and summits for the time being, but this doesn’t mean you can’t grow your contact lists and put them to good use. Check out tech bloggers on Medium, for instance, and start engaging with their blog posts.
Speak up and ask probing questions, whether publicly or even privately via DM if you can. Don’t be afraid to provide feedback; your honest reviews of the evangelist will make the world a better place. Make use of platforms such as Reddit, Twitter, and HackerNews that enable discussion and two-way conversations.
Find the Real Person
Look for someone with passion and authenticity; the advocate who has a good altruistic reason to care, not just endorsing a product for the payback. According to Tamara Dull, Director of Emerging Technology at the SAS Institute, a good evangelist values “honesty, humility, and gratitude.”
Check that your chosen influencer knows how to listen as well as speak. Cloud Native Consultant and IOD Expert Ian Miell says that someone who is not just pushing a brand is more likely to encourage discussion, listen well (vital technique for selling), be even-handed, rein in their own opinions, and be genuine.
Look for Fluff-Free, Practical Content
Maintain a healthy dose of skepticism by cutting through the surface marketing lingo, filtering out the hype, and examining the practical details. “Evangelists are great, but essentially they want people to believe. Advocates, on the other hand, want to ‘explain’ what any given piece of technology actually does, how it works in terms of real-world data flows and where it might be going next in terms of development,” says Andi Mann, chief technology advocate at real-time operational intelligence company Splunk.
Tech Influencers as an Evolving Phenomenon
In conclusion, to avoid tech influencer fatigue, bring the experts closer. Make your choices wisely and selectively. Shape the multiple opportunities for chatter into the helpful and directed environment you need.
We don’t really believe people are ready to abandon their tech influencers. But, we do think that savvy influencers may want to reconsider whether or not they’re offering their audience the same quality content they used to, and they may want to ask themselves if they have lost sight of why they started tech blogging, for instance, in the first place.
And, lastly, if you are a tech blogger seeking to grow your own audience, contact us at IOD as many of our tech bloggers have gone from quietly writing an article here or there to nurturing a decent sized following! If you’ve never blogged before, we’re still interested in hearing from you if you have real expertise and skills in cloud, cybersecurity, AI, and machine learning.