Danger in Numbers: You May Not Know Klout, But It Knows Everything About You

| April 3, 2013

I just rated the website Klout. It gets a score of 1984.

If you haven’t yet heard of the Internet’s new rising star of social-media analytics (because you’re too busy having a life, for instance), chances are you will soon be unable to escape its dirty little tentacles. Klout is the latest online spreader of numberism, the belief that our objective worth can be quantified by the potpourri of statistics that surrounds our lives.

Numberism is nothing new. The idea that we can rank the things most precious to us probably came into fashion around the time of the first abacus.

Take credit scores—subjective, often arbitrary measuring systems that allow decision makers to discriminate against those of us who don’t measure up. Credit scores have real consequences in our lives, despite being doled out by fallible agencies that have no real stake in our well being. They are numberism in its purest form: the marriage between human prejudice and that which is quantifiable.

Of course, in the age of analytics, everything is quantifiable, and given such an environment, Klout was an inevitable concept. The website, launched three years ago, purports to measure our online influence across various social networks. Web-dwellers are given Klout scores between 1 and 100, based on the extent to which their posts inspire user engagement such as comments, followers, re-tweets, likes, and whatnot.

Mind you, the self-appointed rate-masters who created this demoralizing pony show have not bothered to ask us if we actually want to be rated. Do you have a public Twitter account? If so, you already have a Klout score, whether you want one or not. If you are not keen on allowing Klout to publicly appraise the worth of your online interactions, it is incumbent upon you to opt out of the website, a process that involves allowing creepy Klout-bots to crawl through your Twitter or Facebook accounts. In the meantime, Klout will keep right on issuing you a score, one that, we assume, will hold serious weight with only the most superficial of new-media strumpets.

It’s all very silly stuff, until it’s not.

In fact, Klout scores are already being taken seriously by people who make decisions that affect our lives—businesses, brands, even employers. A recent article in Wired magazine recounted the story of a marketing professional who was denied a high-level executive position because his Klout score was too low. That same piece goes on to describe how high scorers can qualify for Klout Perks, “free goodies from companies hoping to garner some influential praise.” Then there was last week’s blog post on The New Yorker website, in which Nicholas Thompson, the magazine’s senior editor, wrote how he’d recently received a resume that included the applicant’s Klout score, presumably as a bragging right.

None of this would matter much if the allure of numberism weren’t so undeniably strong. But we are a pack-animal species, a race of hopeless praise addicts with an inherent desire to know where we rank alongside others in the pack. (Hint: it’s somewhere between the majestic alpha wolf and the three-legged dog who gets to lick the bone after everyone else has finished eating.) Combine that pack-animal instinct with the enticing simplicity of numbers, and it’s no wonder we love ranking everything so much. We need to know the top this or the best that. It’s in our blood.

This is all well and good when we’re talking about which movie made the most money at the box office last week, but attempts to rank the things that matter become more problematic with every new variable. The more abstract the idea, the less likely our ability to assign it a numerical value of any meaningful accuracy. Not everyone agrees with this, of course. For instance, many sociologists have long argued that I.Q. scores do, in fact, predict a whole range of life outcomes, including academic performance, physical health, and future job performance. That’s great for a statistics class, but start believing that a test number can predict life outcomes for you as an individual and watch how quickly it stigmatizes you—particularly if you are a nimrod who just scored a seventy-two.

Which brings us back to Klout, a nimrod’s paradise with frightening implications. Klout is more than just a bad idea. It’s a bad idea made dangerous by people who buy into dumb ideas, and we all know that such people are in no short supply on the Internet. So before you jump onto the site and check out your score (don’t hate yourself for being curious), keep in mind that doing so gives validity to a malicious conceit that would be better off dying a quick death.

As for me, I haven’t looked at my Klout score, and I won’t. Hell, if I can go this long without taking an I.Q. test, I can certainly resist the urge to learn the ultimate judgment of a depthless Internet startup. Who needs the stigma?

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This article originally appeared on Glittersnipe in May 2012.

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Category: Featured, Opine

About the Author ()

Christopher Zara is a media and culture reporter for the International Business Times. His first book, Tortured Artists, was published by Adams Media this spring.

Comments (3)

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  1. Buck says:

    “Nimrod’s Paradise” – isn’t that exit 28 on the Jersey Turnpike? In all seriousness, the American version of capitalism (cronyism + financial oligopolies controlling the entire marketplace) is in its gangrenous phase now. I just hope that both the American public and the governing elites can see the ruin that is awaiting them if they continue down this path and make changes soon – but I’m afraid they won’t.

  2. Thanks for the comment. It’s actually a famous beach house on the Jersey Shore — somewhere near Wildwood, I believe.

  3. Brian says:

    I absolutely love this piece. I seemed to define myself by test scores and grades and I.Q. /SAT/ACT tests for a good many years. Bullshit. It was all bullshit. Yes, I learned a lot and practiced self-discipline; however, it left me riddled with trepidation on the mere thought of entering the common sense plain. Thank you for putting it so eloquently. Bully for that!