Among the most fortunate mass communication theories, the Katz & Lazarsfeld’s “Two steps flow of communication” during the 40s described a model where a message broadcasted by a source is captured by an opinion leader who, because his/her reputation among the society, is able to influence the audience’s behavior. Basing on this research, marketing and public relations payed a lot of attention to choose testimonial to be used in above or below the line campaigns.
When in the early 2000s came out the “Web 2.0”, it seemed that model was intended to disappear. Observers and researchers welcomed with a great passion this collaborative circumstance, highlighting the direct access to information, the decentralization of content production, the disintermediation between producer and consumer, the possibility to directly engage with the source. All connected people would have been able to access the information, to elaborate them and share the results. The opinion leader’s role appeared to be definitely got discussed.
From opinion leader to hub
Actually some changes happened, but only on a exterior level. First of all new personalities came to light. They, missing the web, probably wouldn’t ever get visible. Second, we paid more and more attention to conversation generated on-line and contents themselves became often mainstream.
The basic communication flow, anyway, has been almost unchanged, but transforming the “two-step flow” into “multi-step flow”. A proof of that is the fast growing development of reputation and influence measurement tools such as Klout and Kred.
Supposing that every internet user is potentially an hub of a subnet, composed by its contacts, the communication flows from a source is captured by the “hub” that broadcasts to the subnet. Message’s viral degree, that is the message’s ability to be propagated, depends on hub’s reputation and the ability to influence the subnet.
From hub to influencer
If initially it seems that the individual centrality in message propagation has been improved, recalling the Katz & Lazarsfeld theory, the only true difference relies more on the number of required steps to reach the influence, than on the social dynamics themselves.
In the sociologists’ theory, indeed, an opinion leader’s main characteristics were the most access to media, a more literate understanding of media content, the ability to explain and diffuse the content to others. If the access to media problem appears to be solved, the ability to understand and to broadcast media content is still today the common feature between mass and social media.
Katz & Lazardfel, furthermore, concluded their researches highlighting that personal influence (set by interpersonal relationship) is more important than the mass media. Starting from these observations, also today, enterprises plan word-of-mouth marketing, viral marketing campaigns and PR Tatics. Features such as Retweets, Sharing, Comments (that is all the features releated to on-line interpersonal communication) are basic variables in the influence measurements.
Taking Internet as a part of the communication environment and focusing on the modernity of mass communication theory’s dynamics, we can easily guess why Internet can be also a part of mass communication tools such as Radio and TV. Differing from the traditional mass communication’s model – that kept divided Media as source and Audience as target – nowadays there is a two-way flow thanks to which contents generated within the web animate discussions in traditional media and, on the other side, mass media feed on-line conversations. In this context, more than in traditional mass communication, opinion leaders (today named influencers) raise an essential role. They are the true connectors among tools. If they, anyway, are distinguished by the flow direction (the Tv and Radio Influencers are other than the network influencers), we can easily observe that often and often they are converging into the same type. Politicians and showmen are protagonists of the web and internet leading people become mainstream main actors. We can easily image that, once the process will be completed, they will merge each other into a unique typology. In that moment Internet will be a pure mass media.
*Translated and adapted from Internet è un mass media