We’re more than numbers

One of the topics on Monday’s Radio Roundtable was Klout scores, and how far the tool has come in trying to assess and build a more fully rounded picture of a person’s online influence. Klout has come far, and yet problems remain.

The problems are less about Klout then they are about our desire to reduce people to a score. While this is a perfectly understandable development, and it wouldn’t be happening if there weren’t a perceived need to somehow quantify people’s online influence, where this is heading is problematic. It’s long been a philosophy of mine that I don’t particularly care for any system that is set up that provides an incentive for people to lie or game the system–for example, punitive return policies at stores leads people to provide some very creative reasoning for a return. The same is happening with Klout, and as it gains in popularity and usage, the compulsion for people to game the system will grow ever stronger.

Which will eventually render a useful tool useless.

On the #MeasurePR chat yesterday, Shonali’s guest was Megan Berry of Klout, who made the following comment: “yes I actually agree. People are more than score whether that be SAT, credit or Klout — but they are useful shorthands.” True. But the difference is that you have to work to improve your SAT score or your credit score. With very little exception (such as the SAT wisdom of “if you’re really stumped the correct answer is usually C”) you can’t game the SAT or your credit score. You can game online numbers, and people do.

Klout is trying to address what is clearly a problem. On the #MeasurePR chat, Berry said that the company is working on ways to counter spam and bots, which will discount that content from influence scores. Hopefully this will alleviate problems like the one that Mark Schaefer wrote about a few months ago. (Actually, go read Mark’s stuff on Klout, including this piece and this piece. Good critique.)

My concern is that with Klout’s increased use and attention, people are as usual fixating on numbers and scores, and not in a good way. When HR managers are using Klout scores as part of the hiring process, the pressure for a good score ratchets up. And when there’s pressure for a good score, some people will diligently do their homework to improve their scores. And others will find ways to game the system.

When you want a better SAT score, you prep for it, use the study books, take a class. Sure, some people will try and do something nefarious like pay someone to take the test for them, but that’s very clearly cheating the system, and the penalties are high–as they should be. If you want to improve your credit score, it will take the work of getting your finances in order, paying down debt, etc. But need an improved Klout score? There is the hard work route, which some will take. But there are others who will try and find the quick and easy way to game the system, just like all of the programs that sprang up promising Twitter followers for a price, or Facebook likes for a fee.

I also continue to be bothered by the suggestion that Klout measures influence. Any communications professional or PR pro worth his or her salt recognizes that influence is entirely contextual. There is no such thing as universal influence, so any system that purports measure such immediately sends up a red flag for me. I don’t really know how else I’d describe what Klout measures, but it seems to me to be more Share of Social Voice, or Amplification Potential or something along those lines. Justin Bieber’s perfect Klout score of 100 means absolutely nothing to me. I don’t follow him, he’s not influential to me at all, and I don’t think I’m alone. So how is his influence score “perfect”?

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