Klout and a Broken Model of Internet Influence

Back in 2012, when I joined the startup scene in San Francisco, I was surprised to learn that so many took Klout seriously. They tracked their Klout rating over time, comparing it with others, and even had playful competitions to see who could increase their Klout score the most over a couple of months.

When I first learned of Klout shortly after it came out, I didn't think too much about it. It basically seemed like a one-number metric to determine your influence online. As the years have passed since Klout was launched, I see it more as an example of a how a deeply flawed model of the internet has been popularized.

In the early- and mid-1990s, the internet was a loose federation of institutions, mostly in the .gov and .edu spaces. Email was still highly decentralized, since webmail didn't exist yet. If you were 'on the internet', it was likely through your university or research institution, and they might offer you 'web space' where you could publish some HTML files that constituted your website (much like the site you're reading right now). It was a beautifully organic system, but was still nascent, reserved mostly for the technical elite. Fast forward to today, and we find that almost all of the power on the internet has been consolidated. Home pages have been replaced by social network profiles on corporate-controlled sites like Facebook and Twitter. Rather than providing space and bandwidth, these companies are 'identity brokers', a much broader and more lucrative role than a simple web host. I've never heard that term used before, but it seems apt.

But with this inevitable commercialization of identity online comes second-tier services that analyze the resulting structure. Where Google sought to analyze the inter-connectivity of the sites on the internet, Facebook sought to rebuild the internet from the inside out, replacing home pages and web hosts with profile pages that Facebook could track metrics on, like popularity. As competition grew and other niche networks joined the fray, an opportunity arose for companies like Klout to act as a sort of meta-analyzer, analyzing identity and profiles across social networks, delivering a satisfying number letting you know your worth online.

As I was sitting at lunch earlier this week, a coworker asked me "Hey, what do you think of Klout?" I paused only for a moment before replying "Honestly? I think it's bullshit."

There are a couple of problems with Klout, one flowing from the other.

Klout is built on the idea that a person's influence online is governed by the profiles they keep in large, corporate-controlled networks. If a person doesn't buy into the notion that social interaction online should be mediated by these identity brokers, Klout simply ignores them. It's not the worst assumption to make, however, in an age where The Pope has a Twitter account.

The second problem, an inevitable outgrowth of the assumption that social networks are the source of influence, is that Klout completely ignores other sources of influence. If someone has a blog with 500k subscribers via RSS, it is invisible to Klout. If someone is a top commentor on Slashdot, a top poster on Reddit, in the top 1% of StackExchange users for C++, or has 10k followers on YouTube, they might be completely invisible to Klout, and at the very least, all those contributions online won't contribute to Klout's notion of 'influence'.

And that's the crux of the issue. My identity online is a handle I've spent years building across dozens (probably hundreds, to be honest) of sites. While it's in Facebook's and Google's and Twitter's best interest for my identity to be tied to their service, I believe that identity and influence cannot be so easily corralled.

And that's the real problem with Klout: it reinforces this notion that the identity brokers dictate reality. When I joined the startup, a senior employee told me "You don't exist online!" I was confused, since I have at least two different blogs, and have fairly active accounts with G+, Youtube, Reddit, Twitter, StackExchange, Slashdot and GitHub. When I asked her what she meant, she simply said "You have no Facebook profile!" Even in my case, where I maintain multiple profiles on sites controlled by identity brokers, it still wasn't enough; they have to be the right identity brokers.

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