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.

Prior to being expelled from the team and subsequently the school for stealing Coach’s cell phone, deleting all of his contacts to conceal the stolen item, then turning around and selling said stolen phone to another player, Delonta was a college basketball teammate of mine.

Delonta was no taller than 5’6″ with shoes. He was, by all means, an unlikely candidate for the sport, particularly on a roster of towering trees on the hardwood. However, Delonta had freakish athletic ability evident in his lateral quickness, vertical jump, and uncanny ability to create sufficient space between him and the defender, which allowed him ample time to get off the open shot. He was a sharp shooter who lived mostly behind the 3-point arc, but once inside the paint lived predominantly above the rim gliding by and above defenders over a foot taller.

He had a shiny head that he shaved regularly, a bright smile, and hands the size of our starting center, Stanford, who was well aware of Delonta’s pilfering past and prior misdemeanor convictions.

“Keep a close eye,” Stanford had said when Delonta appeared through the double-doors on the first day of tryouts.

After Delonta made the roster and our first away game scheduled, I was in Coach’s office shooting the breeze about our potential for the season when Stanford moseyed in through the door. He folded his giant body into the lone chair beside me in Coach’s office. He slouched a bit, positioned his elbow on his knee, and propped his face in his hand.

“Coach,” Stanford said, “I don’t care if the locker room door is bolted shut with a logging chain and a 5-inch thick padlock, I’m not leaving my shit in the open for sticky fingers to snatch. I’m telling you Coach, your golden boy is a thief and will pick the pocket of more than just the opposing player.”

Coach was The Redeemer in a way. He was all about second chances. No one was flawed in his opinion, only misguided, and could be put back on the straight and narrow with the proper mentor—someone who could identify the struggles of the individual and help them overcome it. One way of doing that was to be part of a team, an interconnected group of individuals whose success depended on the whole of the team and not on one individual. It was a way for a kid turned sour to turn good again. He could play basketball as well as earn his degree, and with an education came a better future and more open doors.

“I’ll pay close attention,” Coach responded, trying to appease Stanford. “But give him a chance, will you? People change.”

Stanford rose, sort of shook his head a little and unwillingly agreed to give Delonta the benefit of the doubt—for Coach’s sake.

For the short time I knew Delonta, he was a likeable guy and could tell a story with the best of them. On our third road trip that season, Stanford sat in the back of the bus with his headphones in, nodding along to the music in his ears. His left leg was stretched out and straightened in the aisle.

The entirety of the team went through their pre-game road rituals.

Jerel began freestyling.

“I like that,” Chris said in response to Jerel’s freestyle before beginning his own.

Then Buck jumped in.

Then Juan.

Keshawn Pickens sat beside me and Bird Owen and Palmer to the right of us.

My ritual consisted of reading Larry Bird’s autobiography, Drive, every road trip—a habit that, more than anything, grew out of superstition.

“I think you’d appreciate this,” Coach had said to me, handing me the book prior to one of our away games.

That night I went out and scored 19 points, grabbed 17 rebounds, and dished out eight assists in a win. Therefore, as a rule of superstition, it became a necessity to read Drive every trip while twiddling a crumpled Dennis Rodman trading card between my fingers for hours on end as I read.

Delonta initiated his road ritual that day, a ritual that would only last approximately two more games before being banished from the basketball team for good.

“I have a story,” Delonta began. He licked his lips and rubbed his thumb against his heavy eyebrow, a habit of his that accompanied the onset of a brief narrative.

“When I was in first grade, I was a good speller,” he started. “So I’m standing up there in front of the school in the auditorium. The year-end Spelling Bee. The Big Finale. It’s just me and another kid. We’re the only two left. Everybody else has been knocked out. Kids sitting down, still crying ’cause they missed a word ten minutes ago. One boy had to be picked up and carried offstage by two people because he was so upset he lost. Me and this other kid are going back and forth; the judges trying to make one of us slip up. My moms is in the front row, smiling. Proud of me.”

“‘Bicycle,’ the judge says.”

“‘B-I-C-Y-C-L-E,’ I respond. My moms gives a big thumbs up.”

“‘Hydrant,’ another judge follows.”

“‘H-Y-D-R-A-N-T,’ the other boy spells.”

“We’re neck and neck. It goes on like this for a solid two-three minutes. Neither of us falters.”

Delonta pauses. Jerel has stopped freestlying, as have Chris and Buck. All eyes are on Delonta except Stanford. He’s still in the back of the bus. Sleeping. Leg stretched out.

“Then the judge says, ‘Crayon.’ My smile gets this big.”

Delonta smiles from ear to ear.

“You stupid,” Bird says to him, laughing.

“So I’m thinking, ‘I got this Bee.’ This kid doesn’t have a chance. I’m taking home the gold today. ‘Crayon,’ I respond. ‘C-R-A-,'”

Delonta pauses again.

“‘C-R-A-Y-O-‘”

“I’m picturing my crayons in my hand, coloring. My favorite color green. I’m smiling. I’m gonna win the Spelling Bee. My moms is smiling. Everybody in the auditorium has their attention focused on me. The principal is looking at me. My teacher.”

“‘C-R-A-Y-O-L-A, Crayon.'”

“‘I’m sorry, Delonta,’ the judge says. ‘That is incorrect.'”

“‘C-R-A-Y-O-L-A,’ I spell out again.”

“‘I’m sorry, Delonta.’ He looks at the other kid as if to give him a chance to spell it.”

“‘Crayon. C-R-A-Y-O-L-A. Crayon,’ I say, crying. My moms is up from her seat, walking hurriedly toward the steps to the stage. The principal is nodding his head at the assistant principal. The auditorium is in complete silence. The kid who had been crying for ten minutes because he spelled a word wrong ten minutes ago has stopped crying. He’s looking at me.”

“‘That’s how they spell it on the box,’ I say to the judge.’That’s how they spell it on the box!'”

“At this point, my mom has whisked me from the stage and taken me behind the curtain. Her hand is over my mouth. My feet are dragging the ground.”

“‘Crayon,’ I hear the other kid say, ‘C-R-A-Y-O-N, Crayon.'”

“I’m throwing a temper tantrum, protesting to my mom and telling her they are cheating. My mom is whipping my ass behind the curtain. And everybody’s clapping for the other kid who just won the spelling bee.”

Less than a month after telling this story, Delonta was expelled from the team after Coach’s cell phone went missing and was traced to another player on the team who it had been sold to. Whether or not Delonta’s failed attempt at winning the coveted Spelling Bee championship in 1st grade after being robbed of the crown on account of corporate branding and product monopolization was the result of his descent into a life of crime and kleptomania is anyone’s guess.

Nevertheless, his theft did result in his banishment from the basketball team for good; and though Delonta may have been a kleptomaniac, it was never suspected he was a pathological liar and had made up the Spelling Bee story. Stanford would later transfer on scholarship to an apprentice school in Norfolk and be zapped by a high voltage of electricity while working as an apprentice in the shipyard. He would be okay.

Fin.


An empty cargo boat is sitting in the Puget Sound with nothing to do.

I see as many as three of them at once sometimes from the window of my apartment.

Tonight, my girlfriend is going to cut my hair, which might be the reason the Northwest is in a recession.