Sunday, December 4, 2011

Klout and the Future of Whuffie

I like Klout, admittedly with a few reservations, realizing that it has a long way to go. It is something of an attempt to be a Whuffie system, and I have been writing about those for years. Klout, despite its flaws, gives a good example of how Whuffie systems might start out and where they might go in the future. Klout's stated goal is to measure one's online influence, and render that information as a number between 1 and 100. To quote their About page: "The Klout Score measures influence based on your ability to drive action. Every time you create content or engage you influence others." This year, Klout has hit public attention in the online world. There are a lot of people who think it is desperately important, and others that hate it, but Klout has at least succeeded in getting people's attention.

I do have several criticisms of Klout. I am curious as to how meaningful it is as a measurement in terms of real-world impact. What exactly does online influence mean, and should people care about it as much as some of them seem to? How exactly do you define influence at all? As far as I know, it is not easy to make tests where we ask people to attempt to influence the world in a particular way, and measure the result. Klout is only measuring comments, retweets, shares and such. It does appear to be correlated with real-world fame and influence, as can be seen by people that have real-world fame tend to have high Klout scores. People are still trying to find out whether Klout is actually usable in real world situations. There haven't been anything approaching double-blind scientific tests, only approximations and Klout's marketing department trying to convince us that it is a real thing.

Klout's algorithm is secret, so for all we know a significant portion of the score could be a random number generator behind their black box. I might just be an openness and transparency fanatic, but I imagine that will be a significant weaknesses for Klout. There is no accountability or insight. Considering that the metric is their business, this is somewhat understandable, but for me at least, it is a hindrance. Klout is succeeding in getting attention right now, because it's the only real competitor in this space and no one is providing an alternative. We simply have to take their metric because it is the only one out there.

While one of Klout's benefits is simplicity of presentation, I wish that one could go into more detail with the score. Social influence, online or not, is incredibly complex. People can be hugely influential on one subject and not another; people might be more likely to influence those with similar tastes; there is a difference between influencing the world by creating new works and directing people to existing ones; and there are many other shades of 'influence' that Klout doesn't go into. Klout does attempt to make its metric more focused by listing individual topics, but I find that system to be largely irrelevant at the moment. Topics are limited to three per person and they are determined solely by what I believe is a natural language processing algorithm on their end. Mine are coffee and libraries and that is almost completely nonsensical. Up until a week ago, Klout thought I was an authority on Skynet. It will get better when people can suggest topics for others, and Klout has said that improvement will be here soon. It would also improve if there could be a greater number of topics, and if each had its own individual score. Klout also attempts to break the metric down into sub-factors of reach, amplification and a network's influence, but again, those are somewhat hand-wavy. There is a long way to go on all these fronts. We do not just need more accurate metrics, but to better define what we want to measure.

If Klout were a predictive metric instead of simply a number, it would at least provide an explicit connection to the world. Where if your score is x, you can, through y effort, change the world z amount. Then the metric can be tested and refined. Unfortunately, then you need metrics for x, y and z, and to measure and define a host of other items affecting the system. Despite the outpouring of data about people's social lives, the social sciences remain far from the hard sciences. Klout is just a first step. Perhaps if there were a way to spend Klout, that would give us an exchange rate to something tangible, but I'm not sure that even makes sense, despite the idea of 'reputation markets'. Reputation and influence are not easily transferable or fungible, so our handy metaphors are not much use. Could you measure a Gross National Attention and see where it is being spent?

Our shortage of metrics in the social sciences is so acute that people are starving for them, even if they are as imprecise and inaccurate as Klout. Klout is already showing itself to be significant, simply because it is used. I have seen a lot of articles this year by people ranting how important Klout is. That 'Without Klout, Google+ is dead to me'. Instances of people throwing fits with regards to their score. Given the tone used in those articles, it is easy to dismiss the people obsessing about Klout as twats, but Klout does appear to be a meaningful measure to some extent. How to make it more useful is a better question.

People, mainly marketers, are attempting to use the metric and measure the results. Dozens of companies are giving away perks to people with high Klout scores and certain topics of influence in the hopes that they will talk up their products and influence people to buy them. Audi appears to still be trying to figure out whether or not their participation in such a plan actually had results. There's a new idea to give people with high Klout equity in startups if they and promote them. Again, a ways to go, but with money being poured in, people are going to want to be able to measure their return on investment.

As hungry as people are to use the Klout score for marketing, people are even more hungry to have a high Klout score, out of sheer simple human competitiveness. Klout encourages people to sign up additional services in order to get a higher score. Not everyone cares to do this of course, but certain competitive people like me are more than happy to. Thankfully, I've avoided sounding like a twat on a message board, but I can see some of where they are coming from. I could easily imagine people out there wanting to give Klout access to their emails and phone records just so that their connections to various people could be added to their score. As I wrote earlier, it gives people something to compete for in a way similar to money because it's a status metric.

Klout does indeed lead to some negative effects in the real-world, beyond shrill comments on blogs. A lot of people have criticized that it just creates an arbitrary pecking order for people to be pricks about, or to easily dismiss people without looking at them, and that is a danger. A great criticism of the social networks behind Klout, 'The Social Graph is Neither', does a good job of pointing out how far removed Facebook and such are from normal human interaction. Klout does certainly have a 'teach to the test' effect, encouraging online interactions for the sake of scoring points. I admit I have found myself influenced to tweet more simply with scores in mind. My response to those criticisms is to make the test better, instead of abolishing the test. That is why I am trying to better connect the metric with reality. Ideally, I want Klout, or a new Klout replacement, to be greatly improved, but I am thankful for it as a first step.

This has gotten quite long enough at this point, so I'm going to break up what I am writing into more articles. Next up will either be a deeper look at ways to improve social metrics, or a look at my favorite social network, Reddit, thoughts on improving it, and how it ties in with Klout.

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