Seeking Social Media Clout While Scoring and Losing Klout

September 17, 2013

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.

Klout_logoLet’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.

Facebook_logoThere 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.

Wired_Magazine_LogoAnother 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.


Festina Lente and Social Media: Thinking Before We Post

September 6, 2013

Festina lente, the wonderfully evocative Latin expression commonly translated as “make haste slowly,” is a mantra we need to share with our social media learners who express concerns, in the early stages of their efforts to effectively communicate with the myriad resources available to them, about how to control their online content and presence.

Filoli--Festina_Lente--2013-05-04

Festina Lente plaque over gate in Filoli Gardens, south of San Francisco

It’s that bit of guidance that suggests we should think before we act; avoid the “ready, fire, aim” sequence that leads to so many regrets; and temper our obsession to use speed-of-light communication tools in a moment that is almost certain to expand over a much longer period of time than anything we can imagine at the moment we post something online. It’s also a great way to remind them that there really is no absolute control or room for second thoughts once our words are published in the virtual world.

This tantalizingly contradictory guidance to act quickly and with consideration to avoid disasters is certainly not unique to situations in which we post social media comments in haste. We can really only imagine the “what-could-we-have-been-thinking?” recriminations harbored by key players after the existence of the previously-secret White House taping system was revealed and contributed to the end of the Nixon administration. Or after videos of the July 12, 2007 Baghdad airstrikes and photographs of the torture and abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib were released.

But those are world-changing revelations, far from the minds of most of us when we decide to “like” something on Facebook, use the “favorite” tool to call attention to a tweet, or post on our social media platform(s) of choice the latest fleeting thought we have before thinking about what a long life that thought may have online. Those of us who attempt to be thoughtful about what we cast out into the virtual world often mistakenly assume that by being diligent about our Facebook privacy settings and using allegedly secure means of online communication, we are establishing some sort of control over who sees what we choose to share online—an idea repeatedly debunked through numerous articles about Facebook’s ever-changing privacy policies, the ways other gain access to information we erroneously assume is ours to control, and the ways prospective and current employers as well as school officials review online content for a variety of reasons.

The latest report documenting how little control we have over our online content appears in an extremely detailed New York Times article published today: “N.S.A. Able to Foil Basic Safeguards of Privacy on Web.” This is far more than the significant story it appears to be about how National Security Agency employees were building “entry points”—intentional flaws—into the encryption products that were supposed to assure privacy in online communications; it’s also an enormous reminder that regardless of what we do to try to control our online content, there’s someone out there capable of overcoming those controls if the motivation to do so exists.

New_Digital_Age--CoverBut we really don’t even have to dive into the Spy vs. Spy world of surveillance to respond honestly to our learners’ questions about how to approach our online postings and overall presence. Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, in their book The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business, provide an extreme example of what happens when we post without thinking about potential repercussions: “In February 2012, a young Saudi newspaper columnist named Hamza Kashgari posted an imaginary conversation with the Prophet Muhammad on his personal Twitter account,” leading to “thousands of angry responses, death threats and the creation of a Facebook group called ‘The Saudi People Demand Hamza Kashgari’s Execution.’…Despite his immediate apology after the incident and a subsequent August 2012 apology, the Saudi government refused to release him. In the future, it won’t matter whether messages like these are public for six hours or six seconds; they will be preserved as soon as electronic ink hits digital paper. Kashgari’s experience is just one of many sad and cautionary stories” (p. 56). (We can only assume that Kashgari somehow missed reading about Salman Rushdie’s experiences—and wonder why Schmidt and Cohen see this as something that won’t matter “in the future” after documenting that it already occurs.)

Which brings us back to our roles as trainer-teacher-learners helping others to work as effectively as possible online: invoking festina lente as a guiding principle before we post will not give them—or us—the level of control we crave, but it might lead to better experiences overall online—as long as we don’t let it keep us from saying what we and wonderful colleagues like Sarah Hougton know must be said.


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