The announcement that a social media analytics company changed the way they measure things should have been a non-event. But when a company named Klout, which attempts to measure people’s “online influence,” changed the way it calculates people’s scores, the resulting firestorm caught a lot of people by surprise.

The company had been hoping for the best: “This project represents the biggest step forward in accuracy, transparency and our technology in Klout’s history,” a company blog post proudly announced, even though Klout’s “history” was all of 25 months.

But the result of their great leap forward was lower scores for almost everyone. And for a variety of reasons, that made a lot of people very unhappy. Klout ranks people’s “online influence” with a number from 0 to 100. The company compiles a dizzying array of impressive-sounding statistics to do this, including wonktacular ones such as Inbound Messages Per Outbound Message, and Comments Per Post Follower Retweet %.

It “isn’t about figuring out who is on the ‘A-list’,” the company’s website says. “We believe that every person who creates content has influence. Our mission is to help every individual understand and leverage their influence.”

Yet according to various investor presentations and interviews, the CEO ’s vision is that when you check into a hotel, you will be get upgraded (or not) depending on your Klout score. Your resume will be electronically evaluated and possibly discarded automatically based on your score as well.  The Klout website even quotes some droid saying “My dating criteria: must have a higher Klout than me.”

To recap: the company took its biggest step forward in transparency by continuing not to release its algorithm. And it says its mission is to help us understand and leverage our influence, even though the CEO’s vision is to mine our online activity as data, then use it against us like a night club bouncer. Though others have compared Klout to a credit score, with the important difference that the companies providing those are heavily regulated because of the influence they wield. They may be right, since Klout is supported by $10 million of venture capital.

The company’s blog post received over 2,000 comments, almost all of them negative. Back in June I blogged about Klout, complaining that it reduces people to their scores, and that Klout’s scientifical factorizing of innumerative quantifiables in a proprietary, techno-sekrit equation-matrix was basically bullshit.

I also parroted Stephen Jay Gould’s criticism of IQ tests, as they abstract a complex concept and reduce it to a single number used to rank people. But then I argued that Klout scores don’t have the same kind of serious real-world repercussions that IQ did, because no one has been sterilized because of low Klout. Turns out I was wrong. People unhappy with Klout pointed out that some companies use Klout scores for job searches and employee performance reviews, so moving the goalposts hurts certain job-seekers, as well as people trying to earn a living in social media.

That aside, people taking a hypothetical hit to their self-esteem didn’t explain the outrage. However, other writers had a better explanation.

In an outstanding essay titled “The Accidental Bricoleurs,” Rob Horning offers the best analysis of social media and culture I have read. He notes that Facebook (and Klout, I would add) have a “parasitic business model,” in which they “appropriate the content and connections we generate as we recreate our identities within their proprietary systems, and then repurpose that data for marketers who hope to sell tokens of that identity back to us.”

Horning argues that this is an evolved form of brand-behavior, the same kind identified by management guru Tom Peters: “You’re not a worker ,” Peters wrote. “You are not defined by your job title and you’re not confined by your job description. Starting today you are a brand.”

Peters argued that self-branding is “inescapable,” and suggested that we brag about our accomplishments and things we are proud of. Horning calls that behavior a “concatenation of fame hunger and dismal self-exploitation.” And his description explains the rest of the furor behind #kloutfail, #kloutpout and #occupyklout: Even people without artistic projects or businesses to promote are out there habitually blatting their little trumpets of narcissism, so any downgrade, even an arbitrary one, gives them the sadz.

Thanks to sites like Facebook, Horning writes, “having a self becomes an inherently commercial operation.” Sites like Facebook are “designed to make us feel anxious and left out if we don’t say it, as their interfaces favor the users who update frequently and tend to make less engaged users disappear.” On top of the systemic anxiety that we’re not doing enough, our personal brand just lost value.

Horning points out an even creepier aspect to this behavior. He cites social critic Thomas Frank’s book, One Market Under God, which argues that personal branding is a form of coercive self-surveillance that corporations were anxious to induce. Franks heralded “The Brand Called You” as “a terrifying glimpse of the coming total-corporate state, a sort of Dress for Success rewritten by Chairman Mao.”

Like inmates Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon prison— which Michel Foucault used as a metaphor to describe disciplinary societies, and their powers to observe anonymously and normalize, we are now paying attention to random number. And we’re self-editing our behavior as a result of it, even though we don’t understand how it’s calculated, or who calculated it, in the vain hope of accruing benefits for “good behavior.”

Making the prison metaphor even more fitting is the difficulty in opting out. As one tech blogger noted, Facebook “make[s] it ridiculously tricky for a user to quit their service…. The option to actually delete a Facebook account permanently isn’t even directly available on their site.”

Klout takes it a step further.

Unlike Facebook, you don’t choose sign up for Klout—as soon as you are active anywhere on social media, it mines your data and assigns you a numeric ranking. Everyone gets Klout scores, including pets with their own publicists, and even minors, as a social media professional learned when her son (who has no Twitter account and privatizes all his Facebook settings) was assigned a Klout number. (As an aside, after I’d written a draft of this, the New York Times picked up this story.)

For a long time you couldn’t completely opt out. If you tried to delete your account, Klout would mask your account on their site with a landing page, but it would still gather your data, turn you into a number, and feed that number to third-party applications such as HootSuite and MarketMeSuite—leading one blogger to liken it to a Roach Motel.

You can now cancel your account, though when I did so, the site warned me to also de-authorize other social media accounts such as Twitter and Facebook from sending data to Klout. (Good advice, I suppose, but I feel like being told to close my blinds to thwart the peeping Toms.)

But what if, for some reason, you want a Klout score—and even want to raise it? After all, even if you disable Klout, other k-infested companies are kropping up like weeds, such as Empire Avenue (“the social stock market”), PeerIndex (“understand your social capital”), Peoplebrowsr (from Kred), How Sociable, and PROskore.  To play the social media analytics game and “leverage your influence,” you apparently have to like selling out. Not only are you turning over a bunch of data to strangers, it’s also like going back to high school, where you shun the dweebs, and do a lot of ass-kissing to get in with the popular kids:

“Make sure you’re engaging with people who have a relatively good to a higher Klout score,” says a talking head. “When you engage with people who have like no Klout or a very low score it’s reflects poorly on you. Even spam bots have a score of 25 or something, it’s crazy.”

That’s putting it mildly.

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JOHN OCHWAT is a recovering journalist, the co-author of one of the most obscure academic books of all time, and winner of a dishonorable mention in the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. He was a columnist for the publication the Columbia Journalism Review called "The Worst Newspaper in America" (regrettably, he was not singled out for mention). His work has appeared in McSweeney's, Soma, and Forbes ASAP, among other places. He's also a dabbling musician, an intermittent blogger at First Person Irregular, and procrastinator on Twitter.

25 responses to “You, Inc.”

  1. jonathan evison says:

    . . . fascinating stuff, john . . . but i sorta wished i hadn’t read it, because now i feel dirty . . .

    • John says:

      Dirty is the word for it, Jonathan. Turns out Salon.com is hatin’ on Klout as well:

      “In the new Klout, I now get notices along the bottom of my screen about which of my contacts have gone down in score recently: in case I want to dump them, I assume, like dead weight. Bye, Mom! Farewell, shy cousin Ernie! Adios, infrequent Twitter user! It’s all business.”

      • Dana says:

        That is really creepy. Maybe even especially for someone like me, who has nothing to sell, but really does use social media to socialize. At least my credit score rocks.

      • D.R. Haney says:

        I began reading the piece on Salon about Klout but didn’t finish it. I finished this one, which hopefully amounts to the transparent praise it’s meant to be. Also, thanks for the link to the Horning piece, which I mean to read shortly.

  2. This is unbelievable to me, but all probably unstoppable.

    Thanks to the incisive way you lay this out, I had one of those moments where I marvel/tremble at the future that seems to have arrived much more quickly and oddly than I could have imagined.

    The Horning article is amazing too. He happened to mention a viral video I posted on fbook that I didn’t think many others did, which leads me to wonder who’s watching who.

    It also makes me curious as to what my score would be.

    There goes my own slippery slope.

  3. Sara H says:

    I recently enabled a Klout profile out of curiosity (of course! that’s how they get you!) and now I guess it’s going to be another one of those things just out in the ether of the internet. I’ll probably just end up disabling it as much as I can after the novelty of poking at it subsides. I don’t work in an industry where my Klout number would make any difference, nor do I put any real stock in the number I have outside of “Huh. Interesting.”

    Still, I figure that just about any major site I visit (Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc) is using me as part of a data farm. Is that awesome? No, but it’s the trade-off for using social media on the internet now. I adjust privacy settings where I can and where I want to, but otherwise… There’s only so much one can do, which sounds awful defeatist and passive, I know, but I just can’t be arsed to get too up in arms about it. Sorry.

  4. Aaron Dietz says:

    Obviously, the Klout score is not yet indicative of any kind of truly significant behavior. I can go online and act like an idiot and I know my Klout score will increase. Measuring specific types of positive influence and/or behavior (especially behaviors that influence spending or political action) will be the gold mine.

  5. Assuming that Klout ever becomes the Google of social metrics, there are at least a few areas where the score could be unobjectionably used as a criterion for job screening. 1. SEO professionals. 2. Social Media professionals. But when Klout gets in the way of career development in less “linked-in” fields, we might have a problem.

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