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The Rise of Klout and the Triumph of Celebrity

May 1, 2012

“Klout is one of the worst ideas ever put online.” – Tom Scott, founder, Klouchebag.com

“This is the intersection of self-loathing with brand opportunity.” – Wired Magazine

“You are never penalized for connecting or engaging with someone with a low Klout score.” – Klout.com

You know that person who has close to 1000 Facebook friends and a seemingly endless supply of wall posts, all of which garner scores of “likes” and comments?  This individual probably maintains a very strong influence over his or her friends. If this “influencer” suggests you check out a new bar or restaurant, chances are that you will check it out. Klout, an online app, measures just how influential your acquaintance is on a rating scale of 1-100. The more influential Klout finds your acquintance, the more likely it is that he or she will receive perks, prizes, and maybe even land that dream job.

As outlandish as this may seem, it looks like the future of social media. If you ever wondered where social media was taking us, look no further than Klout. While some believe that Klout is democratizing influence, giving average users a chance to influence others and reap the benefits, others believe that Klout is destroying our relationships. One website, Klouchebag.com, even has an algorithm that measures your level of “asshattery” (try it if you have a Twitter handle).  Despite the outcry, Klout offers a vision of our social media future – one in which our connectivity and engagement correlates with the benefits and services that we receive. Those who refuse to engage will be left in the cold.

An example of how Klout works.

What Is Klout?

Klout founder Joe Fernandez envisioned social media as “an unprecedented eruption of opinions and micro-influence, a place where word-of-mouth recommendations—the most valuable kind—could spread farther and faster than ever before.” To this end he invented Klout, which uses a ratings metric to measure the social media influence of a user. This metric takes into account three variables: “true reach,” amplification, and network. “True reach” is the total number of people you influence. Amplification measures just how much you actually influence people. Network measures the influence of the people who are in your network (that is, it measures how far your influence can travel).

Klout uses all of your social media to tabulate its rating of your influence. It draws from your Facebook, Twitter, Google+, FourSquare, and LinkedIn. It leaves no social media stone unturned (OK. Maybe Pinterest). To give you an idea of how the ratings work, pop star Justin Bieber has a perfect score of 100 (could be that he has over 21 million followers on Twitter!), while President Obama (the most powerful man on the planet) has a paltry score of 91. The average user scores in the 20s, and according to Klout, it becomes exponentially more difficult to raise your score once you get into the 50s. Just because you have a few friends that re-tweet you does not mean that you are influential.

We Are All (Unpaid) Marketers Now

A few weeks ago, I wrote that we are now all marketers. In reference to the rise of personal branding, I argued that my generation has been forced to learn marketing skills  in order to survive in a highly competitive job market. Now, it looks like marketing ourselves isn’t enough. Instead, we are being asked to market other brands in return for a few perks. It works like this: brand recognizes that you have a high Klout score (meaning that you have solid social media influence), the brand provides you with good customer service or a sample of its product, then brand hopes that you will sing its praises to your social media followers. The benefit may be free stuff, but what they’re asking you to do is market for them…for free! Klout calls its high-scoring users “influencers,” but I just call them unpaid marketers.

Klout's promise.

Klout, like Pinterest, is an amazing gift to brands major and minor. The Wall Street Journal identified this when it wrote that a brand’s goal [in using Klout] is  “to find the equivalent of the blogger in Texas, get her engaged, and push a product pitch across the Web.” Allow me to translate this for you into language that you can understand. Companies want to use Klout to identify influential people, exploit them, and make them sell their products. Klout helps companies identify the people who might be able to push their brands out into the blogosphere or onto Twitter and Facebook and now even gives the companies the chance to give those people free stuff in the form of “Klout Perks.”

This transformation of the consumer into a commodity ought to worry you. Shoving products down people’s throats is one thing, but it’s quite another when the person doing the shoving is your friend. I don’t fault the brands for doing this – it’s the natural evolution of advertising in the age of social media – but you don’t have to be a part of it. However, as one Klout user put it, the VIP status associated with a high Klout score “is an ego thing.” Democratizing influence means that we have also democratized celebrity. When CEO Joe Fernandez says that he “see[s] Klout as a form of empowerment for the little guy,” I wonder if what Klout is empowering is only a stronger sense of entitlement for the “me” generation.

Defining Who We Are

Klout is part of a wider trend in which we ask others to define who we are.  We are allowing ourselves to be defined by an arbitrary ratings system. Instead of thinking deeply about who we are, what we want from life, and what we expect from our relationships, we immerse ourselves in social media and imagine ourselves as true VIPs, the centers of our perfectly constructed social universes. As one writer put it: “Because, in this era of self-created media/social networks, Klout isn’t measuring some distant and massive media corporation. Rather, it’s measuring you.” Once you realize how scary that really is, you begin to understand the troubling direction in which we are heading. The New Yorker summed up this dilemma of identity very neatly when it asked: “Do you really want something in your pocket that will tell you what you’re worth?”

What I find most worrying of all is that Klout appears to be transforming into something that leaves us with no choice to opt out. Think about this: “In February, the enterprise-software giant Salesforce.com introduced a service that lets companies monitor the Klout scores of customers who tweet compliments and complaints; those with the highest scores will presumably get swifter, friendlier attention from customer service reps.” Combine this with perks, such as upgrades and free samples, and you begin to see the formation of a class system. One marketing guru described this as the formation of “social media caste systems.” That is, places “where people with high scores get preferential treatment by retailers, prospective employers, even prospective dates.”

I’m reminded of a famous exchange from Shakespeare’s Henry IV. In it, Falstaff pleads with Prince Henry (Hal/Harry) to forgive him for what he’s done. He ends his speech with this line: “Banish not him thy Harry’s company, Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world” (2.5.437-438). Hal responds, chillingly: “I do. I will.” As our own disconnected lives plead with us, “Banish us and banish all the world,” we too respond like Hal. “I do. I will.”

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