The question of the influencers' real marketing power wouldn't matter so much if it wasn't central to the whole best-selling Tipping Point thesis and the foundation of innumerable costly marketing efforts. As the challenger, Watts is the crankier of the two contestants, calling Gladwell's thesis a bunch of crap, if only because it never explains the "mechanism" around which the influencers manager to influence so many people. For the Influencer thesis to be true, he asks, wouldn't every person the influencer touches have to become magically transformed into another influential? Gladwell, as the reigning champion, is more circumspect or generous or just too rich to care at this point, and suggests we all are just seeing part of the great whole.
The whole debate was covered with some depth and acuity here in the February Fast Company and it's worth spending some time with for a couple reasons. One, it's just weird that a qustion in market research is the center of this much controversy. Two, it suggests how powerful intuitive theories like The Tipping Point can be, even if they happen to be wrong, though the jury certainly is still out on this point. E.g:
Turning away from the fascination with new media magic and the (seemingly free) power of WOM, Watt's takes us back to the right message at the right time. Certain ideas fly around so fast less because they are implanted in the smartphones of the well-connected than because they are good or at least culturally resonant ideas.
Why didn't the Influentials wield more power? [Watt's speculates about a simulation he created] With 40 times the reach of a normal person, why couldn't they kick-start a trend every time? Watts believes this is because a trend's success depends not on the person who starts it, but on how susceptible the society is overall to the trend--not how persuasive the early adopter is, but whether everyone else is easily persuaded. And in fact, when Watts tweaked his model to increase everyone's odds of being infected, the number of trends skyrocketed.
"If society is ready to embrace a trend, almost anyone can start one--and if it isn't, then almost no one can," Watts concludes. To succeed with a new product, it's less a matter of finding the perfect hipster to infect and more a matter of gauging the public's mood. Sure, there'll always be a first mover in a trend. But since she generally stumbles into that role by chance, she is, in Watts's terminology, an "accidental Influential."
To me, it seems likely that they are both wrong, at the extremes. Most of the time, fast-talking hipsters can't save an irrelevant idea any more than a resonant idea will necessarily circulate itself. And both perspectives are valuable, as they offer two useful views on the social life of information. But at the moment, Watt's is more fun to read, if only because his arguments are fueled by the ferocity of a born spoiler. Hard to believe it, but this might be one argument worth following.