Digital Leaders
Digital Leaders

I work in education. I was recently asked to “tweet” in order for our department to gain visibility within our own organization, something I have been consciously avoiding. I quickly discovered three previous Twitter accounts which I started and abandoned after my ADHD kicked in and I got bored. I started a new account. I have 38 followers.

Suffice to say, I do not have a lot of digital influence. I’m not a digital native—I’m old enough to remember when if you wanted a loudspeaker for your opinions, you needed to get on television, the radio, or write for newspapers. Media was in the hands of professionals, and you had to know someone or be someone to get access. I can even remember when email was novel, rather than being the norm of business and personal communication. Things have changed.

When the editor asked me to do a piece on Digital Influencers, I hesitated. Was she aware of how unsavvy I was at this sort of thing? Since I’m a science person, I wondered if she made the not-unreasonable assumption that I had some amount of tech literacy, something that is patently false.

Still, though, I was curious. I did need to beef up my Twitter numbers. Maybe I could learn something if I could converse with somebody who did know something about this world wide web that the kids are all on these days? And who wouldn’t want a little more digital influence? I decided to say “yes.”

Then I was asked to talk to some pretty important people. By pretty important people I mean people who attended or work with premier universities, who podcast, who manage global networks of communication online. They have their own Wikipedia pages. These people count followers in the thousands or millions.
I’m not sure what to ask them exactly. But I decided to give it a shot. 

Sramana Mitra of 1Mx1M
I had the pleasure of speaking with Sramana, easily the most intense of the three interiewees. Case in point: When my $10 phone app that I was hoping to use to record our conversation failed to work on my kludgy iPhone, she quickly dialed me in to a free conference-call website within five minutes, four of which were spent with me trying to type and work a laptop, with a phone in my other hand. This is why she’s the CEO of a multi-million dollar incubator, and I have—as of this morning 43 Twitter followers.

Sramana Mitra, Top 10 Digital Influencer, LinkedIn 2015.
Sramana Mitra, Top 10 Digital Influencer, LinkedIn 2015.

Sramana’s clearly passionate about what she does, and I wasn’t quite prepared for the intensity she displayed, as I had seen some of her videos and heard her podcasts. It’s the same content, but she is very measured in public presentation. Get her on the phone, though, and she will tell you exactly what she thinks, with a vigor usually reserved for skewering politicians. The word “opinionated” doesn’t quite suffice. This could be construed as criticism, but it is anything but that. We want people who have good ideas to be forward with them, and as far as I can tell, she is making a whole lot of sense.
The one notion she explodes for me is that biggest is always best.

“Hyper-growth is not a natural state. You can’t expect that you put in money, and expect that hyper-growth will just deliver itself. In some cases it does—Facebook, Google, Apple—they grew at an amazing pace. But this is not normal. These are the outliers.”

The whole notion behind 1Mx1M is that it is just fine—and, in fact, preferable—to have reasonably sized, profitable companies that have done their homework, boot-strapped at least a sizable amount of their own capital and assets, and don’t necessarily subscribe to the prevailing Silicon Valley notion that you have to be infinitely scaleable.

“I consulted on all sides of the equation—small, medium-sized and large start-ups—I worked with every single part of the food chain. A striking observation was that over 99% of the companies that apply for venture capital get rejected, for very good reasons.”

The idea behind this is that medium-sized, profitable, and sustainable business models not only have a place in the global economy, but that the long-term sustainability of the global economy actually depends on it. “We’ve built a society where there is too much wealth at the top of the economic pyramid. The numbers are staggering. About 42 people own 50% of the world’s wealth.Do look that up”

So how does 1MX1M help move capital to the middle of the wealth pyramid? The company is virtual. You can be anywhere on the globe and sign up for their curriculum, which is their mainstay, augmented by Sramana’s significant digital presence on the podcast, on video, and in books and articles. They walk you through how to bootstrap your company, when and where to look for funding, and most importantly, how to avoid the notion and the pitfalls of the hyper-grwoth mindset.

One million dollars sounds like a lot of money to one person all at once, but on company-sized terms, it isn’t huge. But when you multiply that by 1 million entrepreneurs—her stated goal, whether or not that is hyperbole—still amounts to a lot. And she is the figurehead for all of it.

Being under the giant microscope of the public eye 24/7 was something I hadn’t yet considered. I wonder what it must mean to be available to that many people with only 168 hours in every week. She still has to sleep, sometimes. I ask—she has to have some boundaries, otherwise I imagine she would go insane. “We have a round table you can visit every week. It’s free, and the only time I avail myself personally.”
It seems a sensible technique, and perhaps something that I wouldn’t need to do. I’m beginning to question the notion that we all take for granted—fame is great, success is measured solely by volume, and the limelight should be on all hours of the day and night.

Vivek Wadhwa, Professor Emeritus

Vivek Wadhwa, Professor Emeritus, Carnegie Mellon
Vivek Wadhwa, Professor Emeritus, Carnegie Mellon

Vivek, according to his bio “researches exponentially advancing technologies that are soon going to change our world,” which is a pretty open statement. Our opening bid in the conversation that we had was—what the hell does that mean? OK, that was my question. He obviously knows what he does, and I’m actually more diplomatic than that. I said that in my head, but offered a more professional version of the question. We’ll get to that.

Here’s what he actually does: he researches AI (artificial intelligence) robotics, driverless cars, advances in computer processing capacity, and anything that could be construed as exponentially growing technology. I was just flummoxed about how you actually research the impacts of technological developments on society that haven’t actually been developed yet.

And, I asked him just that—“How do you research the impacts of technological developments on society that haven’t even been developed yet?” His answer was simple, if I may paraphrase:

“You look at how technology has been advancing in the last few decades—and you extrapolate.”

Vivek does not mince words.
Now, anyone that can carry on a serious conversation about how we as a society deal with technological advancements and can effectively illustrate their point with a “Rosie the Robot” reference from the Jetsons wins in my book. I can understand that. I remember Skype coming online, and actually thinking, “Whoa! The Jetsons are here. I wonder when we get to eat meals in pill form, and ride sky-walks? Must be soon.”

Still, technology has its dark side, and I wanted to ask him about that. “We can’t keep up—people are not ready for the change that’s about to happen.” He is speaking of the sheer speed at which technology is advancing, and our diffidence in acknowledging that, or even being aware of it.

Here’s something I didn’t know: “With computing power doubling every 18 months or so, we are about 7 or 8 years from Rosie being a reality.”

Rosie is a comical and benign notion, but with the advent of fake news—and our ability to disseminate it—we suddenly, in the here and now—have problems we couldn’t have anticipated six months ago. And we have new technology to deal with. The podcast Radiolab just featured a piece on Voco, new software that let’s you not only edit vocal tracks, but literally insert words into the mouth of anyone in their own voice.

That, coupled with new software that lets someone control the facial movements from any video clip in real time means we can now manufacture fake news on a whole new level. I asked him if he saw any of this coming, along with the rise of social media.

“Things are moving even faster than I expected. I expected social media to be uplifting mankind. I didn’t expect it to be unleashing demons. Rather than being used to educate, it is being used to keep people dumb, and to mislead them. People are going to be putting words in Obama’s mouth. Literally.”

It’s scary, and even more so to hear this from an expert in the field. But, at this point, we all know it is true. I ask him if he ever feels like he is preaching to the choir, that the folks that might listen to him are already informed.

“I have the opposite problem. 90% of the time, I have people saying—Oh my god. I had no idea.” I’m surprised by this, and strangely heartened by it. It means that there is value to using a digital bullhorn—if you have something important to say, it is likely there is an audience that needs to hear it. We move into a conversation about how you do that.

“Your strategy needs to be not to say what you want to say, but say what people need to hear.” I don’t quite get this at first. Why would you be saying anything if you didn’t want to say it?

He elaborates by talking about the tech companies that created this massive exponential growth in, for lack of a better term, digital alacrity for everyone. He believes that the onus for considering the implications of the technology resides on them, and that they largely didn’t know or didn’t care about those implications, and he is just fine saying that out loud. Does he need to? Not for himself. He is well established, to the point where he now has to leave his immediate vicinity if he wants to go out to eat without being recognized.

“My wife doesn’t like going out with me, with people saying ‘Oh! You’re Vivek Wadha!’ So we go to different places [farther from his home] so that doesn’t happen. That’s about it really.”
I ask him what he does when he doesn’t want to talk to people. “Oh you can’t do that. People took the time to contact you, so you have to reply. You just have to do it. You can’t be arrogant.”
I’m beginning to get a notion of his attitude towards this digital fame, and consequently why he has it. Anything solely ego driven—your opinion for your opinion’s sake—isn’t interesting to anyone, unless perhaps you are still under 25.

Despite the rather dark begining to our conversation, this is where we end, and I can get behind it. It feels both hopeful and positive, and doesn’t feel fake—we’ve acknowledged that we are in a tough place right now, as a species, and yet it still feels like a universal truth. I would even invoke a cliche—“Do unto others as they would do unto you.” Cliches might be cliche, but they have staying power because they prove true, over and over again.

Sriram Emani of IndianRaga

Sriram Emani
Sriram Emani

Indian Raga, from what I can best discern, is solely a digital platform that seeks to promote Indian classical music and dance forms. If you find them on Facebook or Youtube, you will find numerous music and dance performances artfully recorded and filmed. They look professional, no doubt, but what may strike you as odd, at first, is that the performers just look like normal people, having fun. There are, as well, a lot of kids. They are wonderful performances, but you get the feeling that you could run into them at the grocery store, or that they might be some distant cousin that you met at your aunty’s wedding. And that is more or less true. It is, in fact woven into Sriram’s business model.

Sriram is a musician of note himself. He grew up in Mumbai, and learned to sing in the Carnatic style from a young age, first from his mother, and later as a dedicated student of the Carnatic tradition. But it is music after all—it’s tough to make a career out of it (as a former semi-professional musician with a degree in biology I can corroborate this) so he did what many of us do—elected to pursue studies in something more reliable, and sideline the music.

He attended IIT in Mumbai, went into management consulting, and started working as a high-performing consultant in New York City, where—my favorite part of the story—his trajectory was thrown off course by Broadway musicals.

“I was sitting there watching Phantom of the Opera and my life just instantly changed; this is insane, I thought.”

Phantom of the Opera may have been the initial eye-opener for Sriram, but he went on to see eight more musicals in the next two months. He took a few years to go work for the National Center for the Performing Arts in Mumbai—this was his “break”—then he went on to complete his technical education at MIT, but the drama and music bug still tugged at his heartstrings.

“Even there, it was all I could talk about,” says Emani.

With encouragement from one of his professors, he formed a business plan, the last deliverable as a final project at MIT. It took off. It took off largely because Sriram was savvy about how he set everything up. His company actually depended on small circles of people who loved to play music.

Here’s the thing—we all love music, and if you don’t, I don’t understand you. But you probably do, and Sriram understood that. We also love to share music that we play ourselves—I do. I play and then, I want to share that. He grabbed onto that—how about making a platform for people who love performing, and give them a place to plug into an ecosystem of like-minded people?

Indian Raga Recording
Indian Raga Recording

I’d explain more, but I will take a page from his advice, and not say too much—aren’t you curious already? Do you know someone on Indian Raga, whom you’ve seen perform? Because actually, you might.

He was tactical—Indian Raga launched with reputable, known players—and went from there. They actively sought out talent—if you can play well, you get in, with a small fee, sure, but you get something for that.

You get mentored, you get recording time, you get filmed, and you get plugged into the digital ecosystem. Is it worth it? I can’t make that judgement for you, but, I’ll be more explicit than he is online.

I thumbed through his videos—both classical Carnatic, and good ole’ pop music, stuff my daughter would love—and one video struck me. It’s a bunch of high schoolers some in college—mostly, although I do use that term from a vantage point—they are young, I am old, but nonetheless, the talent level is huge.

One kid—a young kid that looked like me when I was growing up, awkward, finding his place, and really having a hard time fitting in—can rock it. A short burst of percussion from his fingertips leads you to think “Hell, who is this kid?” And now he’s got a place where 5 million people have seen him play. I could have used that growing up, so thanks to Sriram for giving that kid that huge platform—the Indian Raga way!
After talking to all these important people—these digital influencers, as it were—I’m thinking about this landscape made of 1s and 0s. At the end of the day, I have to ask myself—how can I leverage the little digital influence I do have? Do I need to? I try and put my best out on the Internet when I can, but I’m also known for posting some mediocre stuff from time to time—I think we all do. I marvel at the sheer number of people these influencers reach, to be sure, and I’m aware that I don’t have to worry about whatever I said on Facebook last night, because my mom will ding me for it the next morning. Before all seven of my friends read it at work. I can delete it without consequence. Still, I think we all should say what we feel is important out loud.

For myself, I think I’ll tamp down my expectations to something more modest—I won’t expect zillions of followers. The 78 Twitter followers I now have mostly won’t read this article—and that is fine. Twitter might not be the best place to reach them. If they do read it, though, I’ll be more motivated to make something they want to hear.

I’m reminded of one last thing Vivek said. “You have to give before you can take. As in life, the more you give, the more you get. This is an important lesson that people need to learn. It’s always about giving. You have to go into it not saying ‘I want to be popular’ or ‘I want to be a digital influencer,’ but ‘I want to help people. I want to share knowledge. You do for others. That’s life. ”

All said and done, I think I’ll take a page from these influencers’ books, and only say something when I have something valuable to say. I’ll make it count. Without necessarily counting numbers.

Shumit DasGupta is a Senior Associate at the California Academy of Sciences, and is a writer, teacher, husband and father. His work has appeared in magazines, radio and television. You can follow him on Twitter at @das_shumit if you care about science, education, Indian-American issues, bicycling, and cool things to do with LEGO®.

Gaining Purchase in the Digital Sphere:
How to Go About it
This is a condensed list. No one thing is a direct quote, rather, it is a synthesis and amalgam of the themes shared with me by the heavy hitters in the digital realm. Here’s my best effort at distilling the advice they gave:

Offer Something of Value
Everything is free these days, especially information. A lot of it is cloaked in a sales pitch, and everyone can see through it. Don’t do that. Give something out that people want and need first. If they like it—and find it useful—they will come to you.

Include People
Social media, for good or for bad, is a real thing these days, and understanding the motivations of how people share information matters. If they feel empowered—if they are vested in your project, and get a voice in it—they will share it, with their loved ones, their neighbors, their networks, who will share it with theirs—there is real power in that.

Don’t Make Assumptions
That uncle? The grumpy one you were with at family gatherings, who occasionally says weird and inappropriate things on Facebook, because he didn’t grow up with it? Guess what—he has a network, and a powerful one. He knows some important people. And since he isn’t obsessed with posting his own opinion or ego, when he does post content, people will listen to him precisely because he is not that person. Get him to post your stuff. You’ll have to impress him first, though, and that’ll take some work.

Go Niche
A smaller network means a tighter web of contacts. Example: if you are a musician, it’s easier to get a local following than to tour giant cities where no one has heard of you (I speak from personal experience on this one).

Follow the Leaders
Your own bullhorn will be heard for only so many meters. Talk to people with larger bullhorns, and convince them your message deserves to be heard through theirs. If they like it, they will. Google was built on this notion.

Put it Out There
Anyone can publish now. Give it a try. Throw a blog post up; if you get a positive reaction, go for a larger bullhorn, like LinkedIn.

Less is More
Over exposure is a real thing. In the new landscape of constant information bombardment, our brains have largely learned to filter out background noise. Don’t do that. Put out only what you need to say—and give people a reason to learn more. They will find it if they want to.