The San Francisco-based online service Klout purports to provide a score that documents how much influence we have through our online use of social media tools. What it actually deliberately does is lower scores if users do not agree to provide access to secondary (demographic) information in their Facebook accounts. This provides a social-media lesson meriting attention: we need to be diligent about determining what online services offer as opposed to what they claim to offer. And we need to make others aware of what we learn to provide a context for the information that businesses like Klout disseminate.
Let’s be explicit about what we’re seeing here. Klout claims to offer a beneficial service: a tool, that if it were accurate, could offer us an insight into the strengths and weaknesses of our online presence and provide impetus for us to improve what we are doing. Because Klout representatives insist on collecting data including date of birth and what we have liked on Facebook—information ostensibly of more use to Klout’s advertisers than to the process of determining the level of influence we have allegedly achieved online—before they will include accurate information about our levels of online interactions in those scores, I’ve joined those who tried Klout, didn’t like what we saw, and have taken steps to shut down our accounts rather that acquiesce to Klout’s clumsy—and ultimately unnecessary—attempt to bargain access to information for a higher Klout score.
Here’s how it works. Once you start using Klout, you and others can view a score that is supposed to document your levels on online interactions and the influence those interactions suggest. Only after you have used Klout for a while do you start receiving email messages that feel like a low-level dose of blackmail: Klout representatives’ insistence that you start allowing Klout to access additional information in your Facebook account, including “your birthday, work history, education history, current city and likes.” The notes explicitly warn that failure to provide access will result in a lower Klout score because the service will not include any of your Facebook activity that Klout should already have been able to access when you initially connected your Klout and Facebook accounts.
There is something more than a bit disingenuous about Klout representatives’ approach to this issue. When I initially added the service to my social media mix, I had no problem using it without having to respond to the sort of one-line agreement that now pops up when Klout directs me to log in to my Klout account via Facebook. (I’ve generally accessed Klout via Twitter.) It was only after using Klout for a few months that I started receiving email messages from Klout informing me that “Recently (emphasis added), our systems haven’t been able to access the Facebook account you’ve linked to Klout. As a result, your Facebook activity is not contributing to your Klout Score right now. You might not have logged into Klout using Facebook in a while. A day after clicking ‘Reconnect’ below, your Facebook activity will contribute to your Klout Score again (emphasis added to confirm that this apparently wasn’t a problem for Klout before now).” The catch is that you can’t “reconnect” without authorizing access to that additional demographic information.
An exchange with a Klout representative yesterday afternoon produced the following inaccurate statement regarding “current permissions”: “The current permissions allow us to access your public profile, friend list, email address, News Feed, birthday, work history, education history, current city and likes.” But that statement contradicts the report that my Facebook activity could no longer be accessed without a new acceptance of what Klout claimed it could already access. Seems to me that Klout’s representatives can’t have it both ways.
What’s interesting about this sort of low-grade online ultimatum is that little of this demographic information is particularly difficult to track down online, but Klout representatives’ admission that the measurement they propose to provide would deliberately be lowered if I didn’t agree to actively provide additional access to information in my Facebook account made me wonder what other “new current permissions” I would be forced to accept down the road. Besides, my Klout score really doesn’t have that much of an impact on what I do; it simply appeared to be another interesting but far-from-essential tool in my efforts to track online successes and failures to improve my ability to reach colleagues, clients, and others who are important to me. Losing Klout will simply provide a bit of additional time to use more credible web analytics tools to make me a more effective user of social media tools.
Another interesting aspect of Klout’s approach is the range of reactions online writers have expressed in discussing the company’s ability—and inability—to accurately document the online clout that matters. At one extreme is the Wired magazine article published in April 2012 suggesting that a low Klout score can have a significantly negative effect on a person’s opportunity to thrive in our competitive business environment—although the writer does undercut that argument with a concluding admission that “folks with the lowest Klout scores…were the people I paid most attention to.” The suggestion that a Klout score affects employment possibilities certainly contributes to the anxiety some users describe regarding perceptions that their online clout, per their Klout score, is lower than it should and needs to be.
A view from the opposite extreme side of these discussions comes through British author Charles Stross’s characterization of Klout as “something that spreads like herpes and…[is] just as hard to get rid of.” His online post on the topic (under the title “Evil social networks”—Stross obviously isn’t taking a subtle approach) asserts that Klout is “flagrantly in violation of UK data protection law” in terms of how it collects and uses data—very strong and troubling words at a time when the term “online privacy” seems to be an oxymoron and a recent New York Times article confirms that National Security Agency employees have for more than a decade been working to “foil basic safeguards of privacy” on the Internet.
The Wikipedia Klout article appears to provide a balanced introduction to Klout, beginning with a description of the methodology used to produce a score, continuing with a summary of criticism leveled against that methodology, and concluding with a series of references for anyone interested in knowing more about the service and how it works.
What strikes me based on the experiences I’ve had is that Klout appears to play upon its users’ anxieties and insecurities. It starts with an appealing offer to help determine how much online influence we have (or, in a more worrisome way, how ineffective our online efforts might be in reaching those important to us), then takes actions that require we provide access to information in other social media accounts if we want our online activity within those accounts to be accurately reflected in our Klout scores—which then raises the question as to why anyone would rely on scores that are admittedly manipulated.
It’s also worth noting that the scoring system itself is not at all intuitive. Its scale of 1 – 100 would, at a glance, seem to imply that a score of 50 would be in the middle of online influence compared to what others have achieved. Online documentation, however, explains that “The average Klout score is around 20 and a [capital-S] Score [sic] of 50 or above puts you in the 95th percentile of scored users.”
Clout is that valuable commodity that we nurture, maintain, and cherish when we provide something grounded in honest and ethical behavior face to face and online—a commodity that increases as our clients, colleagues, and friends share the work we do and the successes we have. Klout-with a-K is what we’re left with when we agree to support a service that deliberately mismeasures and misrepresents online information if we don’t actively agree to facilitate the gathering of online information that has little to do with capital-C Clout—which is why I’ve decided to lose Klout and share this information with those I help in my role as a social media trainer-teacher-learner.