on Oprah and her (apparently) supernatural powers of influence
I’m fascinated by Oprah. I was also fascinated by the response to her book club – more specifically, the snark, which culminated in Jonathan Franzen’s infamous withdrawal of his novel THE CORRECTIONS for fear that the fabled O sticker slapped on the cover would turn off serious readers, male readers.
Yet when you read the Amazon reviews of Oprah’s book club picks, you couldn’t help but notice a lot of dissent. Members of her audience might buy a book based on her recommendation, but that didn’t mean they would like it, or agree with the ideas expressed within it, or approve of the characters.
When Oprah’s name came up in conversation, you could usually count on someone (who never watched the show, except, possibly, in secret) to accuse her audience of being a bunch of lemmings, but even within Oprah’s magical aura it was clear that there was independent thinking going on.
I think that was my first inkling of the nature of influence. When I started this blog, there was a lot of online conversation about influence, a lot of talk about why writers and other creatives needed to build platforms so they could amass influence – so they could wave a wand, say “Buy my book!” and peoplewould. Because they said so.
After all, it’s not about the number of fans and followers you have, it’s about your ability to get some or all or any of them to take a specific action (like buy your book) when you ask. And if you were really smart and savvy and hardworking and lucky, you could become an Influencer, one of those special few who control the forces of the universe.
What I’ve learned since is that people with genuine influence don’t have some special brand of mind control over their victi – their audience. What they have – what they have earned over time – is the trust of a community that has formed around their content because it is in sync with whatever vision the content happens to express. The influencer didn’t make people like it – persuade or convince or manipulate them – so much as give voice to something that already existed within them, that resonated, that called them home.
What’s more, the influencer somehow embodies these ideas, is a walking talking representation of them, and so the members of the community see themselves reflected back in a way that inspires. Not just who they are, but who they want to be.
People didn’t watch Oprah’s show because it left them feeling bad about themselves — or even satisfied yet vaguely ill, like after a big meal at McDonald’s. The show gave them hope that they could indeed live their best life, and they trusted that Oprah knew what she was talking about because she was one of them, a woman with her own struggles, who had a history of staring down adversity — and winning.
And Oprah understood. She ‘got’ them, which means she knew how to serve them. She gave them content that they could connect with – not all of them all of the time, but enough. What some people liked to scoff at as brainwashing or mind control — or the bovine stupidity of housewives, and the misogyny behind that is worth a post of its own – turns out to be a deep, intelligent empathy, and an intuitive feel for what her audience would respond to, based on years and years of feedback and interaction.
My sense of influence now is that of a conduit — channeling the right content for the right community – so maybe influence, in the end, is a fancy way of talking about curation, whether it’s art or stories or information about a specific subject or ideas. It’s about tapping something in your own personal core – something authentic – that connects to a larger whole through the way you express, amplify it. It’s about uncovering an emotional truth, and holding it up for others to see, and doing it again and again. It’s about a private, unspoken contract you have with each member of the community about what you represent and how you serve.
Change those ideas – like Meg Ryan morphing from cute fusspot girl-next-door to brooding dramatic actress – or violate them in any way, and your community just might disappear.
Influence is a two-way street. Just when you think you’re creating a community, the community is creating you.