The Kase Against Klout

I’ve been kvetching about Klout for a few months. I blogged about it in June, complaining that the social media measurement company turns people into numbers. And then, when the company changed the way they measure people’s online influence, I had another hack (at a site called The Nervous Breakdown, in the technology section).

The same week, the mainstream media got in on the action. The New York Times picked up one of the stories I mentioned, about a woman whose children were assigned Klout profiles, without their knowledge or consent.

Salon.com ran a piece called “Klout is bad for your soul,” by a grad student studying social media, which made many of the same points (though I dragged out Michel Foucault to make my points … who’s sounding more grad-schooly now, eh?)

Anyhow. Turns out some of this backlash is making a difference. You CAN opt out of Klout, though if you’re on Twitter and/or Facebook, you should also update your privacy settings to disallow Klout access to those accounts (here’s how).

But once all that is said and done, know what you get? You get a really satisfying result (this is from Hootsuite):

Getting Klouted

As you can see on the right there, I’m on Twitter. Instead of going through twitter.com, I use a third-party app called Hootsuite, which shows followers, following, number of updates, and a number for something called Klout.

I’ve never liked the Klout number. It’s not even explained — you have to go looking for what it means.

The word clout means both a blow with the hand, and social influence, or political power. The company Klout gave the word a web 2.0 spelling (r you familr with Tumblr or Flickr, mothrfuckr?), and took it from there. They call their number “the measurement of your overall online influence.”

In addition to unfortunate rhyming, the About Klout page claims, “Klout isn’t about figuring out who is on the ‘A-list.’ We believe that every person who creates content has influence. Our mission is to help every individual understand and leverage their influence.”

Only one little problem: that’s bullshit.

Exhibit 1:  the wallpaper on Klout home page:

I have no idea whether these are actual people who have been piteously reduced to their Klout scores. (It’ s also possible they’re part of a human subspecies known as homo stockphotoicus.) But you see the issue, don’t you? These people have become their number.

Klout never exactly says it’s ranking people. They don’t have to. People will rank themselves, they way they would with IQ scores, SAT scores, income — it’s just how people operate.

Call it “social media” if you want, but once it gets quantified, it gets measured. Once it gets measured, it gets ranked. Once it gets ranked, you get squicky quotes like “My dating criteria: must have a higher Klout than me” (that’s on the Klout website).

Exhibit 2: What’s in a Klout score, anyway? They can’t exactly tell you that either, but rest assured, it’s a scientifical factorizing of the innumerative quantifiables in a proprietary and patent-pending equation-matrix that includes:

Followers, Mutual Follows, Friends, Total Retweets, Unique Commenters, Unique Likers, Follower/Follow Ratio, Followed Back %, @ Mention Count, List Count, List Followers Count, Unique Retweeters, Unique Messages Retweeted, Likes Per Post, Comments Per Post Follower Retweet %, Unique @ Senders, Follower Mention %, Inbound Messages Per Outbound Message, Update Count, List inclusions, Follower/Follow Ratio, Followed Back %, Unique Senders, Unique Retweeters, Unique Commenters, Unique Likers, Influence of Followers, Influence of Retweeters and Mentioners, Influence of Friends, Influence of Likers and Commenters.

I don’t know about you, but when I’m checking out a hottie, the things I want to know most are her Comments Per Post Follower Retweet %,  and her Inbound Messages Per Outbound Message figures. Hubba hubba!

Know what’s not on the Klout website? The Klout scores of Chief Executive Officer / Co-Founder Joe Fernandez, Chief Technical Officer / Co-Founder Binh Tran, and Advisor Thomas McInerney. Here’s a memo, guys — want to walk the walk? Then quantify yourselves. Drink your own Kool-Aid.

If you’re certifiably datafiable, you can log in to learn even more about your Network Influence, Amplification Probability, and True Reach.

Not that there’s anything to worry about, right? I mean, this is a positive experience, their mission is to help us, and we wouldn’t want to instill anxiety in people, to make them conform in any …

Hmm. Guess not. Better suck it up and try harder at social media, or your score will go down and you will plummet in the rankings. Or if you think you suffer from social media anxiety, talk to your doctor about … etc.

In his brilliant 1996 book The Mismeasure of Man, paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould cut straight to the heart of problem with IQ tests. He argued,

…the abstraction of intelligence as a single entity, its location within the brain, its quantification as one number for each individual, and the use of these numbers to rank people in a single series of worthiness, invariably to find that oppressed and disadvantaged groups—races, classes, or sexes—are innately inferior and deserve their status.

Klout scores don’t have the same kind of serious real-world repercussions the way IQ did, of course (to my knowledge, no one has been sterilized because of low Klout). But the process is the same: your “overall online influence” reduced single entity, assigned a number, and then ranked.

Though to be fair, Klout is hardly the only one reaming your information. There’s a story on the wires this week that all your online information (Facebook, Twitter, blog)  is being archived by companies that provide pre-employment screening and background information on potential employees for clients.

Let’s not forget monetized — did I mention that Klout is backed by three venture capital firms? In the strangest little coincidence, the day after I started this post, along came …

Exhibit 3: A  story in FastCompany, “Facebook gets new VIP Sections.” The gist of it is that Facebook is developing a new VIP page, and today Audi and Klout are creating tools for it. A Klout VP told the magazine that “the new exclusive page is about finding influencers, movers, and shakers in their niche markets. Brands will be able to give favored treatment to visitors.”

To its credit, FastCompany almost addresses the creepiness of this:

“The creeping influence of money on the Facebook experience could have serious psychological impacts on how users begin to see what was once simple recreation. Facebook and Twitter have allowed few initiatives to permeate the wall between money and fun, but their data gives brands increasingly clever ways to exploit the precise monetary value of each user.” (my emphasis)

Klout says, “Our mission is to help every individual understand and leverage their influence.” But that mission has nothing to do with what fattens its bottom line: namely, getting in bed with other companies (Facebook, Audi) to mine, process, analyze and sell user data for corporate benefit.

Turns out there’s a lot to that little number: It’s a nice bit of metonymy, reducing me to a number so that Audi and Facebook and Klout and God Knows Who Else, Inc. can understand my precise monetary value to their brands.

Oh, no!

Why I Suck at Goodreads

I have a slightly embarrassing confession, which if you read the title of this post you might have guessed: I suck at Goodreads. For those of you who aren’t obsessive book types, Goodreads is a sort of “social cataloging” site where you can make reading lists, make friends, compare friends’ reading lists, write blog posts, book reviews, see how many books you have in common with a friend, etc.

A wonderful idea, in practice. But that depends on you practicing things like logging in and participating. With pretty good intentions I updated my reading list some time late last year.

Between then and now, I haven’t stopped reading. I had Tinkers listed as the book I was reading, and the sad fact was, I stalled on page 81 (or you might say, I stopped tinkering with it). But that’s one of the problems with social media sites: despite heroic efforts by software engineers to make the sites robust yet easy to use, one of my apparent destinies on earth is to be a use case that throws a site’s shortcomings into sharp relief.

For example, I have every intention of finishing Tinkers. I’m leaving the bookmark in. I’ll come back to it one day.

Or maybe I won’t.

But how do you express that on Goodreads? The four default lists are good and commonsense: all, to read, currently reading, and to-read. But really, I start a lot more books than I finish. I get them out of the library, I get them as gifts, I swap them with friends …. I start some, some sit by my bed, others on my dresser, others in stacks around the house.

In the broadest possible terms, I guess my books fall into “to read,” “currently reading,” and “read.” But almost every book has its own shade of gray. Tinkers was a gift from a good friend, so I am more motivated to finish it because of that. I have three books by the same author. I’m about 100 pages into the first. Probably won’t read the other two. How do I express that on a list?

I’ll probably finish the ones on my list now (in the screen grab, above). But what about the music instruction book I have? It’s nonfiction, and not the kind of tome you read from beginning to end. You dip into it, you know? Am I reading it? Well, yeah. Also, no. Am I done with it? Yes. No. Depends. But since I’ve started it, it shouldn’t be in the “to read” list, right?

Except there’s a section that’s over my head right now, but when I can play more, I’ll go back. At some point I am going “to read” more.

I’d argue that I have a separate relationship with almost every book I could conceivably put on my list. And I could put books into groups, but the groups wouldn’t have simple names. For example:

  • Books that I was hot about when I bought them, but then I cooled off (Cloud Atlas, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle)
  • Books by authors who are friends of mine
  • Books I picked up on a whim
  • Books I stopped reading because I’m a feckless dilettante
  • Books I read because everyone else had, yet I felt slightly icky and disappointed with myself for having finished them (Da Vinci Code, Dragon Tattoo)
  • Books I ought to read because they appeared on some goddamned BBC Book List challenge, and despite having an MA in English, I somehow missed

Can’t you just see some programmer shaking his head at that last list, and saying, “No no, that’s much too long to fit into the book-list-name parameter string”?

That’s sort of my point. Zadie Smith makes this point too, as does Jaron Lanier. Smith wrote a good essay for the New York Review of Books about Facebook, and mentioned Lanier’s book You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto. Here she is summarizing him:

Lanier is interested in the ways in which people “reduce themselves” in order to make a computer’s description of them appear more accurate. “Information systems,” he writes, “need to have information in order to run, but information underrepresents reality” (my italics).

Smith asks whether we’re reducing ourselves to fit into the software. My answer is, of course we are.  She floats an extreme stance (though her piece is, as is all her writing, considerably more nuanced)

Shouldn’t we struggle against Facebook? Everything in it is reduced to the size of its founder. Blue, because it turns out Zuckerberg is red-green color-blind. “Blue is the richest color for me—I can see all of blue.” Poking, because that’s what shy boys do to girls they are scared to talk to. Preoccupied with personal trivia, because Mark Zuckerberg thinks the exchange of personal trivia is what “friendship” is.

I’m not so naive to think social media would be possible without limits. That’s actually part of the fun, to work within parameters. And for all its shortcomings, social media allows me to keep distant friends visible on the periphery, to get a condensed version of what’s happening in their lives. And there’s no better break from being a productive worker bee than a little slack-jawed happy time on Facebook or Twitter.

On the other hand, Facebook’s mobile app asks for my location EVERY SINGLE TIME, and its contact fields don’t include a field for Twitter. For its part, Twitter has the de facto effect of quantifying your popularity, either by number of followers, number of retweets, number of favorite stars (don’t ask), or even third-party algorithms with crappy spelling, like Klout. If there had been numeric popularity rankings in my high school, I might have seriously considered moving to Alaska to work as a fry cook.

On the other hand, one thing I like about Twitter is its lists. I don’t actually use them much, but it’s fun to see the lists I appear in. A short list of list names:

  • Sweet supportive saints
  • froods
  • inkpunk-types
  • 1-800-400
  • locomocos

Do I know what those mean? Not really. But the randomness is what makes it great.

To its credit, Goodreads allows you to edit your “shelves,” which is to say you can make up your own names for your own lists. Naturally, I had to try it. How did it work?

books-i-ought-to-read-because-they-

… Yeah. I sort of figured.

Will the Real Bob Smith Please Stand Up?

That’s Bob Smith. Do you know him? I’m not sure I know him either — but Facebook is convinced I do. See for months, every time I had a moment of cognitive weakness and clicked on People You May Know, up popped Bob.

Not much information about him, though. No photo, obviously, just the Alfalfaesque cowlick on the top of his head. No profile info, either. I clicked on his profile, and learned that “Bob only shares some profile information with everyone.” In this case, some profile information actually means no profile information.

And yet, Facebook insisted I may know this faceless, informationless silhouette. But it wouldn’t even tell me if we had friends in common.

I’m not terribly cynical, but I couldn’t help wondering if this was Facebook’s version of “Operation Sock Puppet.” (The link is to a story in the Guardian about how the US military is contracting out to create ‘sock puppet’ software to create fake online identities to spread pro-American propaganda via social media. Your tax dollars at work!)

Maybe Facebook was taking pity on me, for not having enough peoples-I-may-know. Or maybe they just make people up to fill the grid, though that seems unlikely, since there are 600 million real people to choose from.  Today, for example, all the users have photos, but the first three, Yeyizz PTe, PaOo – PAoo,  and Alejita Slip sound more like spam names than real people. Strangely, two others are Neida Yoana Cetina Rodriguez and Carmen Lucía Muñoz Salazar (she’s from Colombia. Colombia??)

I asked around, and no one else knew Bob Smith either. There was, in other words, almost no way to know whether this avatar with one of the most common English names possible was real, or just a digital fiction.

Almost no way. There was one thing left to do, which was to send a friend request.

You maybe can guess the result: no answer.

9 Reasons Squirrels Suck at Social Media

His brain is barely bigger than a Kardashian's.

1. Unreliable online presence, especially during times of peak nut-gathering, or when they’re in rut.

2. Despite user statistics showing a varied audience demographic, they tweet obsessively about digging, blinking, gathering, sniffing, and eating. And sometimes forgetting where they dug the holes to put the stuff they gathered.

3. Every social media strategy meeting ends with a them screeching incessantly, like a chorus of unlubricated wheel bearings.

4. Instead of proactively engaging with stakeholders, squirrels frequently run away from the keyboard to climb fences.

5. They engender intense enmity from the human social media community because, like porn stars, they gain thousands of followers by posting photos and videos of themselves shaking their tails.

6. They do a poor job of managing their online personal brands. Instead, they hop from blog communities to social networks to video sharing sites as if they were some sort of urban tree canopy. (Though to be fair, they were among the first to leave MySpace.)

7. Every day on Facebook they click the Like button, and post a comment that says, “I’m nuts about this!” That was funny for one day, Hammy.

8. All those irritating one-word status updates like “Acorn!” and “Cashew!”, like their brains are nothing more than a Status Shuffle from the Nut Marketing Bureau.

9. They never retweet. Like, anyone. Ever.

The Social Media Value of Idiot Columnists

It used to astound me how many idiots (morons, blockheads, nitwits, pinheads, etc.) still write for major media outlets.

John Tierney, columnist for the New York Times, is a case in point. It’s really too bad I’m far from the only one who thinks this.

Looks smarter than he is

Looks smarter than he is

And occasionally Daniel Hamermesh writes inane things on the Freakonomics blog (such as classic about the environmental dangers of exercise bicycles, or his piteous bemoaning of the hardships of tenured faculty in a depression)  … though he was right about raising taxes recently.

But today I was reading the Toronto Star, which had this headline: “This mother to try potty training at 3 months.” First person by a mom to be … one of the paper’s  living reporters, who is

planning to start practising elimination communication: a method that teaches parents how to read their wee one’s signals so the infant can go in a potty (with assistance, of course) rather than a diaper.

I found myself laughing (communication? they can barely even roll over at 3 months!) and then skimming … and then skipping straight to the comments, which included these:

  • Good luck with that, I wonder if you’ll post if you fail?
  • I think pulling the “better for the envrironment” platitude is disingenous. We want kids to be kids but not if it inconveniences us.Then we’ll accelerate them. I’ve never seen a 10 year old who cannot go to the bathroom by himself/herself. Let nature take its course.
  • This article is hilarious…how can anyone take toilet-training at 3 months seriously? Next they will want to have babies dressing themselves by 6 months, or taking their own baths at 1 year! C’mon people, let babies be babies!!! If you’re worried about the environment, use cotton diapers like we do!

So now I’m entertaining a pet theory that either the Toronto Star and the New York Times have a bunch of nitwits on staff and has to fill up the space with something, or …

This is the dawning of a new era of clever journalism, where the journalist “plays the fool” (for Tierney I fear it isn’t an act), and their ludicrous rantings are really just a placeholder, and the real action is taking place in the comments section.

I’m really hoping it’s the latter.

The next John Tierney

The next John Tierney

How Do You Put Your Twitter Address on your FaceBook Profile?

Here’s an oddity. I’m on Twitter (jjochwat), and I wanted to add my Twitter information to my FaceBook page. So I went to the My Info section on my profile, and got this:

So the question I had was, where do I put it? The drop-down for IM screen names is limited to Google Talk, Skype, Windows Live, Yahoo, Gadu-Gadu, and ICQ.

I couldn’t put it in e-mail because it said “Please enter a valid email address.”

I couldn’t put it as another website, unless I wanted it to show up looking something like http://jjochwat.twitter.com — that’s no good.

Finally, I had to add it to my About Me section. Lame. It makes me wonder if FaceBook sees Twitter as a competitor in the microblogging sphere.

Love 2.0 Means No Privacy

For the most part I’m a fan of social media, but from time to time it gets weird. Case in point is an e-mail I got from a friend the other day. It’s from some company called Lovehappens.com, “Where friends help friends find love.” That idea’s as old as Shakespeare, but the following certainly isn’t:

make-a-match.gif

That’s my friend (on the left). I’ve seen pictures of her aplenty. But on the right are photos of four potential swains.

Hmm. If I were one of them, I’d be a little horrified to find out my handle and photo are caroming around the internet, landing in the inboxes of god only knows how many strangers.

(If you’re curious, my friend is 29, so I think the two young ones (20,20) are too young, the two old ones (41, 49) too old. But I’m not going to tell Lovehappens that.

Crawlin’ from the Wreckage

great_car_wreck_5163.jpgSocial media and book publishing are starting to collide. Here’s the back-story: As you may know, my first novel, Between Clubs, made it to the semi-finals of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. (muted hooray)

That means anyone can download a free 5,000-word excerpt and write a review. To judge who goes to the next round, Penguin Books is rating all 836 books on the basis of customer reviews and reviews by an Amazon Top Reviewer, and Publishers Weekly. (As Slate pointed out, the Amazon reviews have always been a murky, politicized issue.)

This week, Publishers Weekly trashed Between Clubs, probably killing its hopes of reaching the next round. (muted groans)

That hurt, though not because I naively thought everyone would love the book. I knew I’d get dinged, sooner or later (though I had a nice honeymoon, when all the customers who’ve written reviews gave me 5 stars).

It hurt because the PW reviewer got so many obvious things wrong about the review, that I know he or she skipped entire sections of the book. I also felt that the reviewer based some of the negative things s/he said on the basis of not reading. Nor am I the only one who feels wronged. There’s even a discussion thread going on Amazon, Factual Errors in PW Reviews – Do we try to get them fixed?

One writer said of the Publishers Weekly reviews that “quite a few read like 8th grade book reports, (read the first and last chapter then write it up.)”

My first instinct was to fight back, citing chapter and verse to prove that the reviewer didn’t read the book. I even wrote an angry blog post, then deleted it. (Though I did callowly leave it up as an anonymous rant on Craigslist, which was quite therapeutic.)

The writer Patricia Cornwell is fighting back against nasty Amazon reviews, but with limited success and support. According to Tess Gerritsen,

The general reaction in the blogosphere is that Cornwell is rich and famous so why does she bother to fight back? People in her position should be immune to hurt feelings. People with money and success should be able to shrug off any and all criticism.

I think that’s a sort of straw-man argument, much like the charges leveled against Stephen Fry when he complained about how taking photos was ruining book reading (here’s my blog post about that).

Writers like Cornwell get upset and fight back because they’re sensitive and vulnerable to criticism. Tess Gerritsen is, Patricia Cornwell is, I am, and so is everyone who took umbrage at a bad Publishers Weekly review.

What I find interesting about this process is that social media allows people to write whatever they want about a book — and allows the writer to respond.

I’m just not sure whether a writer should. In the Amazon contest FAQ, one of the questions is

Can I vote for my own entry?
Of course! Stay tuned – if you are selected as a semi-finalist in January, we will be providing tips for promoting your book to customers in the coming months.

I’m tempted to review my own book, both as an exercise and to correct the record, but there seems to be an invisible part of the social contract that says not to do it. Part of the reason is that once the work of art is out there, it’s on its own … and if people interpret it one way or another (even if they misunderstand), well, that’s something you can’t control. But maybe I’m wrong, and Cornwell’s right.

What do you think?

PS – The title of this post comes from Dave Edmund’s brilliant song of the same name. This week, the chorus fits:

Crawling from the wreckage,
Crawling from the wreckage.
Bits of me are scattered in the trees and in the hedges

Postscript (June 2008): Just in case you’re curious, I finally did write my own counter-review. I doubt it made any difference, but it did make me feel better.