I seldom find analysis of Web behavior all that comforting -- more than 20,000 signatures on the Free Paris Hilton petition as of this posting, for example -- but a thoughtful and in-depth article on Web communities and "online influencers" at InformationWeek gives me this hopeful notion:
Good ideas on the Internet tend to catch on because they are, intrinsically, good ideas, not because they are strategically manipulated by "influencers."
Of course, I should back-pedal on the optimism a bit and more accurately reflect the tone of Alice LaPlant's report, which cites several marketing and academic sources as saying that trends in general tend to catch fire on the 'Net because a largely undecipherable matrix of conditions favor these trends. A Columbia professor actually uses the metaphor of a dried-out forest, and not a single match, being the real cause for a fire.
So bad ideas -- like Web "riots" of folks who somehow think the most talented people will continue making movies if bothersome things like copyright are washed away by technology -- are apt to be described by this phenomenon, too.
For many years, marketers coveted "influencers," due largely to the dogmatic adoption of "The Tipping Point" and other early credos on Internet behavior. These folks are not necessarily the Nick Carrs or Ariana Huffingtons of the Web -- instead, they are participants in numerous Web communities who, at least marketers believed, could credibly "tip" a community toward their product, world view, etc.
Now, experts are suggesting that it's far better to simply keep your ears and eyes open to what commmunities are saying, and then ride that wave instead of trying to fabricate it, as one source puts it in LaPlant's report. Other sources opine that the influencer theory garnered initial validation because researchers would deconstruct a trend and then isolate a few influencers as the cause of it all, when in all likelihood someone else would have played that role if the "influencers" had not.
It sounds comforting, almost assuringly democratic, that the Web is more about the masses than the Great Man -- which seems to me to be an overly simplistic view of history, anyway.
Of course, businesses would be well advised to remember that the masses are often only one bad idea away from a mob. So monitoring online communities is clearly critical -- to identify waves you either plan to ride out or flee from.