Oprah + the nature of influence

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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 conflicted reaction to his novel THE CORRECTIONS being an Oprah pick. He feared that the fabled O sticker slapped on the cover would turn off serious readers.

The implicit understanding was that Oprah’s audience translated to worshipful Midwestern housewives who would drink poison if she told them to, follow her off a cliff.

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. 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 people would. 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.

Nov 9, 2012
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17 comments · Add Yours

Excellent post! I have a blog and I have noticed how any derivation from the usual stuff you share with readers turns your audience off. It doesn’t matter that you have many sides to your personality. People love you for what they expect from you. If some mommy suddenly decides to discuss political issues instead of diapers, her followers will not be OK with that.

The last line especially in tune with your previous post on “pink” women :)

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I take your point, but Frantzen didn’t withdraw his book: Oprah did. It was widely considered an act of spite on her part. And he didn’t express the idea that male readers are the serious ones — quite the opposite: he said he hoped his book would draw the attention of men, because he viewed the fact that men tend not to buy books as being part of a larger societal problem. His novels are full of extremely smart, capable women and men who are dunderheads, and he certainly got bitch-slapped by a powerful woman who clocked him with her big swinging dick (sorry for the image). Oprah definitely found the magic formula for connecting with her audience, but that audience is (as all audiences are) self-selecting: those who respond to a positive, affirming message like her; those who want a less heavy hand and a less-branded set of themes don’t like her or, for that matter, follow where she leads. I think the lesson is one you hit on frequently in other posts — just be yourself, and focus on getting good at what you love and do well.

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Dan! Welcome back to the blog and/or the comments section! :)

I stand corrected re: Oprah rescinding the invite, I will fix that. And I wasn’t saying that only male readers are serious readers; I was saying that Franzen was conflicted about being perceived as women’s fiction due to the nature of his material (family, relationships) and the O sticker, that the Oprah brand would take away from the literary-ness of the novel.

(I actually loved the novel and I loved FREEDOM even more, I am well aware that he writes complex female characters.)

I don’t recall it being regarded as an act of spite on her part; the general opinion was that Franzen was being whiny and a bit of a dick.

Self-selecting group: that was my point. Of course there are people who don’t like the brand — I like her as a figure more than I liked her show — but my point was more about how her detractors would mock or dismiss her audience.

Good to see you here, it’s been a while.

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Just to add, I have mixed feelings about the whole “just be yourself” slogan: I think it’s simplistic and misleading, maybe because it’s tossed around so often it’s pretty much stripped of real meaning. I think it’s actually quite difficult to know yourself and even more difficult to amplify and convey that self in a way that resonates with an audience. You can be yourself all you want, it doesn’t mean anyone will follow you, it doesn’t mean you’ll have influence.

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I think it’s quite difficult to know yourself too. “The universe within is as vast as the universe without”, I like to say. And I find the two-way role of influence fascinating. I want to say that one needs to be ready for that aspect when/if they find themselves in that position. But that effect is there, whether one ready for it or not. How one then manages the morph is the most telling signs of one’s character.

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I would heartily agree that the “Just Be Yourself” slogan is too simple. And it’s misguided. Once you can cast off other people’s definitions for and of you, great, and there is freedom there. But you don’t have to study with a guru to ask this question: How can you be yourself without other people? And you can’t. You need their mirrors to understand who you are.

I think you’re on to something wonderful, Justine, with the idea of “curation.” It’s something I feel very deeply in all walks of my life–whehter it’s writing poetry or serving on my community theatre’s board or in my romantic relationship. “Being authentic,” as you put it, for me, is also about community, and it means emanating love, connection, and is ultimately a reaching out. :)

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The community is creating you…Yes, so true. I write what I do in the hope that it will give strength, but I also draw strength from the comments my readers leave. I really don’t like the idea that people build a community just to get the to buy something later. I guess that does happen, but I’d like to pretend otherwise.

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No doubt, Anna. I’m gonna pretend otherwise, too. :)

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Call me naive, but I think for a community to exist in any real way it has to be about something other than ‘the buy’ or ‘the ask’. If that’s the sole purpose for it, it won’t last long (or at all). People don’t want to be sold to + for good reason.

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I’ve personally found a community really does have to be a community based on something other than “the buy” in order to be long-lasting—particularly if it’s online. The connection there is too tenuous otherwise.

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Difficult to know yourself and even if you do, difficult to be yourself. Difficult to know how to convey that self to others–especially if you start to become too self-conscious about wanting to be authentic. Which is why I think it all gets boiled down into the simplistic “just be yourself” idea. I think that means: Stop thinking about it so hard and just be. I think the simplest way to be authentic in some way that might matter (to ourselves, to others) is to let go of the outcomes. To not care so damn much how others are responding to what I’m offering. I distinctly remember when Oprah said she was done doing what all the other daytime talk-show hosts were doing (which was mostly the Jerry Springer-type thing). I doubt she could have envisioned the outcome that came from being her authentic self. To me, that’s the power of her example.

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@Rita Yes. Beautifully said.

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Oprah was not afraid to be a leader. That is why she has followers.
When they called her back after interview and offered her the job
she said.. ” You Do Know I am Black, Don’t You” ?

I first knew Oprah as the very white Highschool in my affluent neighborhood
( I went downtown to the Catholic HS ) in Milw WI gave her a scholarship to attend. Meaning she had to take many buses from the inner city to suburbia to get to this huge high school where she was the 1 token black person.

She quit after a few months and went to live with her father in the South… She gave up all that ” Opportunity” in Milw to go to her roots ( she had not really known yet as her mother lived in Milw ) people of color in the South. One of the Best decision Oprah made though at the time I can remember people not understanding it at all… She was considered a quitter etc.. She did not appreciate etc. She took much flack about that.

I think by the time she got offered this job as talk show host she was filled with moxy and adventure… She had stared down a wacko mother, drug addict sister, incest, rape and losing a baby etc etc.. Her life experiences put her well ahead of the curve..to say Screw It… I do it my way… or no way etc…

This Bad Ass way of this tough as nails but showing her heart and soul always people took cover in… As No one else was kicking Butt !! Now Justine You are telling us all this is what we have to do as individuals.. That we have it within us like Oprah to say ” Screw It” ~ I am going to make this work for me.. and plow ahead..

Too from what I read Oprah was very lucky in to get good advice by a accountant just starting out in his career… That told her what to asked for in doing the contract.. and what the potential was for her in this… This is not something she knew. She educated herself how to protect self and carve out her own way. Which as you say people resonate with , this originally of striking out as leader on own.

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I’m sorry, what were you saying? I’m having a hard time concentrating with that photo of Oprah. ; )

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After our exchange here, I tried to find the original Oregonian interview which started the whole contretemps, but it appears to have disappeared. My memory is that he was making essentially an anti-branding argument, or at least he was worrying that associating his brand with Oprah’s was likely to be bad for his brand. In the course of looking for that interview, though, I came across Franzen’s interview in The Paris Review, which I highly recommend. He touches on many great points, including the fact that he was still too immature for most of the literature he was assigned in college, and did not really undertake his education in literature until much later, when he spent 4-5 hours a day just reading. As always, I’m heartened to read about the struggles of writers I love — there’s something about hearing them talk about taking five or six years to write a book and throwing out hundreds and hundreds of pages of work in the process that puts this work of creating art into the proper perspective. The Corrections: not a NaNoWriMo joint.

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@Amara Graps That is a wonderful way of putting it, Amara. Universes inside and outside of ourselves ;-)

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