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!

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Quiz: Name that Product!

Let’s play a little game. I’ll give you three product names, and you try and guess what the products are. Okay? Here are the first three:

  • Rialto
  • San Martine
  • Rosario

It’s something exotic, right? Rialto is a movie theater name, and Rosario sounds like a Brazilian soccer players. So maybe they’re European sports cars?

  • Cabernet
  • San Raphael
  • Rochelle

Okay, not sports cars. You might give a car an incomprehensible genome name (E46 E series, or the CLK320), or if you’re Volkswagen, you might use bizarre-sounding names like Tiguan and Touareg 2, but you’d never name a sports car after a type of wine. The color, certainly — champagne, burgundy — but not the car itself. (Otherwise I’d be driving a Mickey’s Malt Liquor 40 Series.)

But I digress. Still, got to be exotic, right? Do you have a guess? No? Then let’s continue.

  • Palarre
  • Pillow Talk
  • Fables and Flowers

Hmm. With Palarre, I’m really thinking exotic, since it doesn’t even mean anything. But then … pillow talk? What do the sweet nothings whispered by lovers when they’re nekkid and amorous have to do with places like San Martine, or nonsense like Palarre? Maybe it’s lingerie?

Then: Fables and Flowers? That sounds like something from the Laura Ingalls Wilder Signature line of bedding and towels. Color me baffled.

Here are the last two:

  • Prairie Flowers
  • Laureate

Prairie Flowers has to be a scent, or a fabric pattern, right? But if that’s the case, what is Laureate? It means something worthy of honor or distinction, but if it were a product, I can only imagine a leather-bound notebook, perhaps, I dunno, burgundy-colored.

So … give up? Yeah, I would have been stumped too, only I happened to see the product list. But just to help a little more, I went to the company’s website, and pulled a few more names.

  • Portrait
  • Kathryn
  • Devonshire
  • Memoirs
  • Iron Works

… that help? No? Then how about …

  • Gabrielle
  • Cimarron
  • Pinoir

Give up? Okay, here’s the answer. They’re Kohler toilet models.

I bought a replacement flapper for my toilet. This is the package. Who woulda thunk?

LPGA to its 121 Foreign Players: Learn English, or Get Suspended

The LPGA (Ladies Professional Golf Association) tour recently announced that it will require all its players to speak English starting in 2009.

”Why now? Athletes now have more responsibilities and we want to help their professional development,” deputy commissioner Libba Galloway told The Associated Press. ”There are more fans, more media and more sponsors. We want to help our athletes as best we can succeed off the golf course as well as on it.”

Help them? Is that helping them like putting in a foreign language requirement, and then not offering courses to help meet it?

Help them? As in requiring them to learn a foreign language in a year—or face a suspension—when most people spend years learning a foreign language? Actually, Galloway said in a press conference that should a player get suspended, “What we would do is work with them on where they fell short, provide them the resources they need, the tutoring . . . and when we feel like they need to be evaluated again, we would evaluate.”

(Though it wasn’t clear from the story, a “Suspend first, tutor later” policy sounds like a disaster waiting to happen. My guess is that one of the first English words foreign players will learn is draconian.)

“The bottom line is, we don’t have a job if we don’t entertain,” LPGA Tour player and president of the executive committee Hilary Lunke told Golfweek. “In my mind, that’s as big a part of the job as shooting under par.”

It’s true that the biggest part of a tournament’s bottom line comes from the pro-am, and if LPGA players can’t speak English, they can’t socialize with the predominantly English-speaking amateurs who pay to play with them.

And as ESPN’s Bob Harig pointed out, it’s true that it’s in a player’s best interest to learn English. This is where they’ll be spending most of their time, so their lives will be easier if they can conduct their affairs (travel, order food in restaurants, keeping sponsors happy) in English.

But making it a requirement is unfair.

It’s a rule that affects Foreign players only, who will likely have to bear added time and expense to meet it. That’s like asking English speaking players to work full-time, and non-English-speaking players to work double-time.

”This is an American tour,” one tournament director said. ”It is important for sponsors to be able to interact with players and have a positive experience.”

Actually, the LPGA has 121 international competitors from 26 countries, and 45 from South Korea alone—that makes it an international tour.

So why not treat it as such? The only way to make an English-language requirement fair tour-wide would be to require English-speaking tour players to learn a second language in the same amount of time. (While we’re on the subject of fairness, LPGA executives could lead by example and learn a foreign language—in addition to their regular duties.)

Besides, think how happy sponsors would be if an American golf star went overseas and promoted the game and the LPGA in another language. That’s exactly the effect Kobe Bryant had at the Olympics, when he gave interviews in Spanish and Italian. He’s not just a basketball star, he’s a worldwide ambassador for the NBA who sells more jerseys in China than Yao Ming.

If Libba Galloway is sincere about helping players’ professional development, making them all bilingual would be a fairer, better way to grow the tour.

Me and My Job — on Ragan.com

There’s a profile of me on Ragan.com today (UPDATE: the content is now gated, so you can’t see it), talking about what I do (and what my company does) to promote sustainability internally. For those of you coming in over the transom, I do mostly internal communications for an engineering firm, and part of our company’s sustainability efforts mean improving our own internal processes, and educating our employees about what the issues are, why they matter, and what they can do about them.

For those of you coming in from Ragan, sorry about the self-referential loop. But if you’re curious, I’ve reposted some of my sustainability tips on this-a-here blog. Check the sustainability category for more.

I’ll Take a Whopper and Go Straight to Hell, Please

It’s not as if I went looking for evidence that Burger King is all sorts of skanky evil, but lo and behold, said skanky evil kept cropping up. First, I was looking at recently released report cards from climatecounts.org, which tracks prominent companies’ efforts to combat climate change. (This is a big deal, because as they note, “If the world’s 100 largest corporations reduced their greenhouse gas emissions by just 5%, it would be like taking 25,000,000 cars off the road.”)

Guess how Burger King did? On a 100-point scale they got zero.

ZERO.

So perhaps it’s not a surprise that I ran across another Burger King story, describing how one of Burger King’s vice presidents, Steven Grover, went onto a number of public websites and posted a bunch of snarky comments about … tomato pickers. When he was later discovered, Grover was apparently fired for his moronic efforts. (Here’s a summary from PR Junkie, a PR blog.)

But then, in a delicious twist,

The fast food giant also made the brilliant move of hiring a private investigative company with the warm and fuzzy name Diplomatic Tactical Services. The head of the company then posed as a student to infiltrate the tomato pickers group.

Of course Burger King has now fired the investigative agency, saying–get this!–that it violated the company’s code of ethics.

OK, hatin’ on the tomato pickers, and a corporate social responsibility strategy of “screw-it” is pretty bad. Then today Boing Boing ran this:

This is a tray liner from a Burger King in Amsterdam, Holland. Check out that poor onion:

The trayliner depicts the airport-style high security Burger King uses to ensure that only the top ingredients are used. Images include a scared Onion with his trousers down around his ankles while a fierce-looking Pickle guard with a latex glove, prepares to digitally examine him! Scattered about him from his open luggage are veggie porn mags!

Now, eating meat is pretty much an environmental disaster anyway, but holy emetic, Batman! Burger King has NO corporate responsibility, fraudulent VPs, hires nefarious shadow-companies to do corporate espionage, and advertises how it rectal-probes its produce? Umm … can we eat somewhere else?

Money for Nothing

The MacArthur Fellows Program (sometimes known as the “genius grant”) never goes to the people I think it should. Of course I always think it should go to me, and not only because with a no-strings gift of $500,000, I could buy a lot of beer.

Consider my impressive credentials:

– I failed only one class: 9th grade art, spring semester
– I’m pushing the scientific boundaries of vending machine research
– I never tattooed an ex-girlfriend’s name on my body
– I understand the nuances of the dangling modifier

But (the last two paragraphs notwithstanding), this post isn’t about me. It’s about Michael Knetter, my nominee for the 2008 MacArthur Fellowship. Who’s Michael Knetter?

Knetter is the dean of the University of Wisconsin Business School. As Stephen Levitt points out in his Freakonomics blog, Knetter raised $85 million for the school by promising not to name it for the next 20 years. Levitt notes:

Apparently, Knetter is now offering a full slate of objects not to name at the business school. For $50,000, you can have a classroom not named after you. For $5,000, you can not have your name on a plaque in the entryway to the building. For those of you with a little less to give, $50 will guarantee that the urinal of your choice will go unnamed.

Brilliant!

More sustainable, too: Think of all those plaques and signage that don’t need to be produced!

I’m sure this masterstroke will immortalize Michael Knetter … just think: with the MacArthur Grant of $500,000, Knetter’s name could not appear on 10,000 urinals!

A One-Liner Bites Me in the Ass

Last week I wrote that “the Penguin Blog is actually a Penguin Press Release Archive. That’s not social media, that’s PR!”

Mighta shoulda checked more carefully, I.

I got a response via e-mail from Penguin Books:

We read your January 20th post “Semi-Semi Finals” and wanted to address your observation about the Penguin USA blog: We do post Penguin news once a week, but the bulk of the blogging is done by our weekly guest authors

Our main purpose is to give readers an opportunity to hear directly from our authors and editors. Ideally, as has occurred in the past, readers post comments that lead to conversations with the authors and other bloggers.

Thanks to your post, we are checking out the discrepancy between the Amazon and Penguin pages. In the future, we encourage you to post these observations directly on the Penguin blog: http://us.penguingroup.com/static/html/blogs/

Remember me, nattering on and on about jumping to the wrong conclusions if you skim? Ahem. Case in point.

The Reviewing Demimonde

top_reviewer.jpg

Slate Magazine has a really interesting article about Amazon.com’s Top Reviewers, written by a novelist who became suspicious of his own 5-star review.

Turns out his Amazon Top Reviewer has reviewed over 3,500 books, CDs, and movies for Amazon. “In turn, he has attained a kind of celebrity: a No. 7 ranking; a prominent profile on the Web site; and, apparently, a following.” But the reviewer also has detractors, who accuse him of back-scratching, being unduly influenced by publishers, and of not reading the books under review.

The novelist calculated that Harriet Klausner, Amazon.com’s number-one reviewer since the inception of the ranking system in 2000, “has averaged 45 book reviews per week over the last five years—a pace that seems hard to credit, even from a professed speed-reader.”

He also notes that “John ‘Gunny’ Matlock, ranked No. 6 this spring, took a holiday from Amazon, according to Vick Mickunas of the Dayton Daily News, after allegations that 27 different writers had helped generate his reviews.”

I’m interested because my manusript was reviewed, and because I found a blog post from another Amazon reviewer who was picked to judge the early rounds of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest:

Basically Amazon threw the contest open to the first 5000 excerpted-novel entries. Then, I believe Amazon must have asked every single reviewer if he or she would like to read entries and vote — bearing in mind that a lot of people would turn down this unpaid duty.

Despite this reviewer noting that he’s “not even in the bottom tier of reviewers who get such a designation printed under their reviewer names,” he is actually involved in reading and reviewing books more than just casually.

My Amazon Top Reviewer said in part, “This is okay. It might be better than okay if I cared about golf (or to a lesser degree gambling).” Thanks for the fly-by. Sorry you’re so busy.

I imagine the same thing happening at Publishers Weekly, where they have to weigh in on 836 manuscripts before making the cut to the final 100. There can’t be 836 people that PW has at its disposal, which means reviewers have multiple manuscripts.

Not only that, only about a week passed between the first cut (from about 5,000 manuscripts to 836) and the time the Publishers Weekly reviews posted. Thus, in all likelihood, the poor PW reviewers had only a week to review multiple manuscripts and write reviews. That would be too much for even the near-mythic pace of Harriet Klausner (a review every 8 days).

And so a lot of us who are semi-finalists in the contest got hastily written reviews based on skimming the book instead of reading it.

The reviewer whose blog post I quoted above thought the contest was a great idea, and hoped Amazon would do it again. After suffering with a factually incorrect review at the top of my page, one that’s largely going to determine the fate of my manuscript in the contest, I’m not sure I agree.

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.

The Semi-Semi-Finals

genlit.jpgI’ve spent the weekend spamming my friends and relatives, telling them that my novel, Between Clubs, is a semi-finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. (Like the lovely cover?)

In my original post about it, I missed one fact. According to the Penguin Blog (Penguin Books … not flightless birds), the current batch of 836 semi-finalists

will be narrowed down to 100 semi-finalists on February 19th , and Penguin editors will then select the top 10 contestants who will enter the final round, their decisions informed by the ratings and reviews conducted by Publishers Weekly and Amazon.com critics.

Two observations: First, the Penguin Blog is actually a Penguin Press Release Archive. That’s not social media, that’s PR! But hey, any promo is good promo.

Second, the Amazon contest home page makes no mention of the Feb 19th date:

From now until March 2, we’re inviting Amazon.com customers to download, read, and review excerpts from our semifinalists and help decide who will make it to the Top Ten. Penguin will select manuscripts to read from the semifinal round based on customers’ feedback and Publishers Weekly reviews.

But it sounds like if you’re going to write a review (maybe … for Between Clubs?), it would be most effective if you did it before Feb. 19th.