There’s been a lot of noise lately about a company called Klout, which recently rounded up another $30 million in venture capital funding from several big firms. Klout, for those who don’t know it, attempts to put a single numerical value on your online influence across social-media sites such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.
This effort seems to piss off a lot of people, who detail numerous shortcomings in a service that aspires to be the metric of choice for companies trying to reach social-media “influencers,” in much the manner that Google’s PageRank system helps people understand the reach and reputation of websites.
The Klout complaints are many, even as the company rapidly signs thousands of corporate partners who use its evaluations to dish out “Klout Perks,” such as free entry to parties and events, early peeks at hot products and more. The issues include:
- The algorithm for determining one’s Klout score is opaque. You know, kind of like Google’s PageRank system.
- The system can be gamed. One tech-savvy skeptic showed how Twitter bots could be used to create a very strong Klout score in just a couple of months of “work.” You know, kind of like Google’s PageRank system.
- The system doesn’t measure off-line influence, (or even on-line sites such as most blog services). As one thoughtful writer put it, there’s no way for the system to goose up Marc Andreessen’s Klout score just because the dude helped found the modern Internet. To put it succinctly, Andreessen’s Clout far outweighs his Klout. But again, the inability to factor in most offline and some online influence is hardly unique to Klout. In fact, it’s kind of similar to Google’s PageRank system.
So, Klout already has attained its goal: it is like PageRank, at least in some key ways, the only difference being that no one complains about Google for trying to rank them. Whiners probably would be consigned to Eternal Search Result Limbo if they did, but that’s another story.
“I have as much authority as the Pope, I just don’t have as many people who believe it.” George Carlin
John Battelle’s “The Search” (http://www.amazon.com/The-Search-Rewrote-Business-Transformed/dp/1591840880) details what he calls the Google Dance, the Darwinian tech tango caused when tweaks to Google’s ranking algorithms can transform a site’s fortunes. An algorithmic shift can make the difference between living on a yacht and living on the street, fueling an endless evolutionary minuet between Google engineers and SEO gurus.
Klout scores merely take this tango to another, very personal level. As David Rock points out [“Your Brain at Work” (http://www.your-brain-at-work.com/)], neural circuits and brain chemicals such as oxytocin influence us in areas such as trust, connection, fairness and status.
The resulting interactions can translate into all kinds of unexpectedly irrational behavior, such as why people like to win even pointless arguments, spend unnecessarily on designer items, and battle ferociously to be “mayor” of the corner coffee shop. From a social perspective, Klout scores wire directly into these deeply ingrained structures and behaviors.
As Cloudonomics [Cloudonomics.com] founder Joe Weinman, now at Telx, observes, concerns about Klout mix rational economic decision-making with “lazy, hazy, and crazy” behavioral economics. Valid quantitative decision-making blends with deeply ingrained neuroeconomic drivers such as the quest for status.
Actually, the point of this piece isn’t really to slag Klout, though I personally much prefer PeerIndex, one of its competitors. And to his credit, Klout CEO Joe Fernandez says the company is constantly trying to improve its product so it can more comprehensively measure online influence. Presumably, the extra $30 million now in Klout’s bank account will help.
“The history of American politics is littered with bodies of people who took so pure a position that they had no clout at all.” Benjamin C. Bradlee
He has an uphill battle ahead. Some people are outraged about Klout in ways they never would be about Nielsen, comScore or other services that strive to measure how many people are looking at some form of media. Why? Because, in this new era of self-created and -generated media/social networks, what Klout is measuring is not just the work product, however flawed, of some distant and massive media corporation.
Instead, Klout is measuring the work product, however flawed, of you. There aren’t many things more annoying than feeling your worthiness judged by a seemingly arbitrary number derived in ways you don’t quite understand.
But really, all this kerfuffle misses the point. Having a single number somehow describe your true influence on others is, at its heart, kinda ridiculous.
Recent research (admittedly also criticized) suggests that social media postings about our likes and dislikes barely affect the opinion of even our friends when it comes to brands, products and experiences. For all those companies now handing out Klout Perks and studiously trying to enchant alleged online influencers, this is just a bit deflating.
At bottom, Klout, PeerIndex, People Browser, ProScore, Twitalyzer, Kred and other competitors are trying to measure (in slightly different ways) the same thing: someone’s intent to buy.
But why are we online, tweeting and posting and sharing and all the rest? Like an actor might ask, what’s our motivation? Are we trying to influence others when we post about events in our life, or products we like, or stuff we find interesting? Are we shilling for someone? Why are we doing this stuff?
It’s a little like, in a different context, spending $25,000 to buy a table full of tickets at the United Jewish Fund annual banquet, then advertising it to all our friends and enemies. Why did you give that $25,000? To help the needy recipients who benefit from the UJF’s programs? Or just to show your hyper-competitive fellow rich schmoes what a noble rich schmo you are?
Personally, I don’t think it should count as philanthropy if the donation comes with self-promotion and personal rivalry, but that likely would empty the coffers of most American charities.
“I didn’t do it because of the underlying greed that’s prevailing, but it is about greed, doing the right thing at the right time, using your clout when you have it and what for and what reason.” Danny DeVito
To put it another way, is the most influential and powerful person in a room the one with the most keys, or the one who can get the most doors opened for him/her?
At the heart of these rather cosmic questions is a really important basic truth that Klout score can’t quite capture: other people grant power and influence to you. You only have influence when someone else gives it to you.
Gartner is a well-known research company that makes money publishing and selling lots of moderately priced white papers and research briefs on various industries to lots of people. Accordingly, a lot of people know about Gartner.
My companies, RampRate Sourcing Advisors and DeepStrat Digital Strategy, do tech research too, but we don’t publish any of it publicly. Compared to Gartner’s big bullhorn, we might as well be mimes in a black box.
Instead, we publish our tailored research to highly focused audiences, i.e., the client who commissioned the project. We don’t ask how much a random pair of jeans costs; we ask how well does this specific pair of jeans fit your body? A lot of times, our work shapes the decisions of very big clients that in turn affect entire industries.
Given that, which research company is more “influential?” The big one or the little one? The prominent one or the quiet one whose targeted work helps shape major decisions? Sometimes, a strategic silence can be golden.
On the side, I blog a lot for my own site and various outlets. Occasionally, my posts are about the industries my companies serve. But my blog-driven bullhorn seldom touts my companies or even me as their glorious and brilliant leader. Hard to believe, I know.
Instead, many of my pieces are motivated by a Ralph Nader impulse, when I’m frustrated by the anti-consumer misdeeds of power utilities, car dealerships, computer stores and others. Other times, I highlight the lifestyle and moral choices that can improve our lives or the planet.
Am I trying to influence you? Yes. Do I make money off this writing? In nearly all cases, no. But based on the responses I get to my blog pieces, I know lots of people are listening, and that is its own significant reward. I started writing because when I meet people, they almost never understand what I am talking about. Writing gives me a chance to actually make sense to them.
And because they’ve decided to “listen” to me by reading what I write, they’re granting me influence when they think about what company they want to do business with or how they want to live their lives or how they can preserve this wobbly blue marble we live on.
Measuring that influence, which isn’t about selling anything but might help change the way we think about our world, will never be something Klout and its competitors can fully tote up, no matter how much Clout I also might have.
Power, real power, comes in many forms. What you do when no one’s watching can truly affect our world. Random acts of kindness prevail where pompous over sharing fails. True clout is what you get as others measure your actions.
“Nearly everything you do is of no importance, but it is important that you do it.” Mohandas Gandhi