Gary Vaynerchuk may be one of social media’s runaway success stories, but he’s got more than a few haters out there. This week at Fast Company, he documents the issue of people thinking he’s a douchebag online. The subject is especially pertinent for Fast Company, considering that the magazine is currently dealing with a similar problem.

A few days ago, Fast Company debuted something called the Influence Project. Meant as a social media experiment to test viewers’ influence online, the project quickly garnered critics who called it a ponzi scheme and questioned Fast Company’s motives. The magazine is trying to redeem itself and prove that it is interested in the greater landscape of social media. But as the interview with Vaynerchuk shows, Fast Company hasn’t fully grasped the idea of influence online.

Vaynerchuk says that despite his 46,700 Facebook fans and 852,000 Twitter followers, 15% of the people who come into contact with him think he’s “the biggest douche bag.”

Vaynerchuk is famous for turning his family’s local business WineLibrary into an international success story. Meanwhile, the Gary V brand has won him a huge following and multibook publishing contract. 

But Vaynerchuk’s career and Fast Company’s recent experiment both display the problems with trying to grow your reach as far as possible.

For Vaynerchuk, the business benefits far outweigh the snarking he deals with online. And Fast Company is sure to get traffic from the Influence Project.

But Fast Company’s experiment immediately received backlash. That’s because they’re looking to crown “2010’s most influential person online.” They’re measuring influence according to how many people contestants can convince into publicizing their bid online.

Anyone can enter the project by uploading their picture to the site. The photo then grows in size according to how many people share or retweet that profile. But guilting acquaintances into retweeting a self-promotional link is not the same as proving influence.

That’s the distinction that many took issue with. TechCrunch said that the magazine “Creatively Combines Link Baiting With A Pyramid Scheme.” SFWeekly attributes the the site’s “shadiness” to why “almost no major online players have signed up for the
once-in-a-lifetime chance to be on the cover of November’s Fast Company.”

The Influence Project is not a failure. In 24 hours, nearly 6,000 people registered to participate.

To create the project, Fast Company worked with digital marketing agency Mekanism, a shop that claims they can “make just about anything go viral” to create the project.

And the whole thing is partly a bid to gin up interest in Fast Company. According to Mekanism’s creative brief:

“It’s a meta viral marketing experiment wrapped in editorial.

(Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that little bonus bump: If
you’re on the cover of a magazine, you’ll probably buy that issue of
the magazine. This idea is going to sell a lot of copies of Fast
Company magazine
to people who have never bought it before.)”

Mark Borden, the writer who helped come up with the Influence Project, defends the experiment:

“Yes, we hope to be able to name the most influential person online in
our November issue. But that issue will do much more, looking at
influence from all kinds of different perspectives. And along the way,
I’ll be writing daily on the subject
of influence–occasionally focusing on the project, but mostly writing
about interesting people I learn about along the way, and how they
create and wield their own online influence. Which brings me back to
the main point of our project: It’s a wild, unwieldy, imperfect, and
hopefully fun way to take a look at the wild, unwieldy, imperfect and
certainly fun world of social media.”

Despite whatever observations may come with it, The Influence Project is a way to get Fast Company on the radar, to increase the site’s traffic, find it a place in the conscience of the diggerati and earn it some respect as an experimental organization.

If the backlash continues, Mekanism will prove that its viral success works, just not in a positive way.

There are interesting ways to measure influence online. But Fast Company has categorically confused the matter by attaching their influence measure to promotional retweets. Rather than let people nominate and vote for their favorite online influencers, they are expecting each participant to work as a publicist for Fast Company’s pet project. Even Vaynerchuk, who is being interviewed to promote the project, says as much:

“I definitely think there’s some way to understand how people
emotionally feel about somebody, but I don’t think data collects it.
They’re not going to click your link or click your TweetMeme
retweet every time….I th no matter
how successful Fast Company is with this data, I don’t think data always captures emotion
and I focus on emotion.”