I can’t remember precisely when I found out what a Kardashian was. Wikipedia says that Keeping Up With The Kardashians, the first reality show (of four!) to center on the clan, debuted in October 2007–its existence no doubt fuelled by the curiosity around the most visible Kardashian, Kim, after a sex tape of hers surfaced earlier that year. When people not engaged in pop culture ask what put the Kardashians into the public awareness, the snide–yet not entirely incorrect–response is that tape, but, mostly, the Kardashians are famous for being famous.
While there have been do-nothing socialites before, the Kardashians are a phenomenon tailor-made for the social media age. Whereas even a decade ago, media gatekeepers held a tighter rein over who upon to shine the spotlight, with the advent of YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest–okay, I’m sure you get it–personalities have been able to reach the public directly and wrestle away some control. I use the term “personality” loosely, as Kim Kardashian is essentially a cipher, maybe intentionally, allowing her fans (and detractors) to project whatever they wish upon her.
Kardashian also has a Klout score of 91. The site, which purports to distill online influence into a single index, claims that she “is one of the most influential people in social media and can start a trend with a single message.” (In fact, as of writing, Klout has narrowed down the number of people she influences to 1,503,618, a jump of 13,280 from the previous day: it’s been a good one for Kardashian.) She is influential about religion and spirituality, television, and Hollywood. She is more influential than Oprah, who has a Klout score of 84–she fell by one over the course of writing this piece–but also a third of a million less Twitter followers.
These numbers, on the surface seem impressive. Certainly, brands have been working to align with Kardashian as she has piled up over 20 endorsements, contributing to her estimated net worth of $35 million (US). Aside from making Kardashian richer, has her alleged mammoth online influence translated into sales? Numbers are scant to find, but research culled by the Gap, after Kardashian brought a lawsuit against the retailer, suggests very few of the 1.5 million people Klout says Kardashian influences actually follow her lead. The obvious truth is that while a bounty of people may enjoy the antics of a reality-television star for free on Twitter–and even punt in a retweet or two–once hard-earned money is at stake the dynamics shift very quickly.
While this is hardly a definitive case study, it’s worthwhile to realize that online influence is a slippery thing to quantify–linking it to an action such as making a purchase is even tougher. Klout has been rightly criticized for being amorphous, using a mysterious algorithm to calculate its scores, and I have issues with how far-reaching the company claims of its metrics. All the fancy dots on a graph mean nothing if the numbers are based on hand-waving; and, this concern is exacerbated by a lack of research confirming correlation (let alone causation) between, say, Klout’s True Reach and actual reach.
This lack of sturdy science made Klout a joke among social media circles when the company started, but that pithy humour has turned to alarm as numerous companies desperate to grapple with the social media era have quickly and uncritically accepted its values as fact. It’s shocking when we learn, as in Wired, that a man with years of relevant work experience fails to get hired for a job because of a low Klout score. Eventually, we are told, the man builds up his score within a few months and becomes competitive once again. The implicit suggestion here is that somehow Klout could reflect our actual influence, but we bear the onus to work our way to a rightful score. There’s a sense that people have taken to Klout out of exasperation, trying to make sense of the complex and complicated intricacies in human interaction, and the decision to salute the Emperor’s new clothes is better than doing nothing at all.
Indices, in themselves, are not bad, given that people take the time to understand the limitations of a measure; however, when people trust Klout as the wholesale, de facto indicator for online influence–when someone, for example, doesn’t get a job because of a number generated in a black box–we are in trouble. What exactly does Klout measure? The company does itself a disservice by not clarifying what it assesses, aside from influence, which is at once broad, slightly vague, and yet impressive-sounding. If you believe a singular value on influence can be determined from a series of tweets and Facebook, I have some Zynga and Groupon stock I’d like to sell you.
Influence is a subtle and subjective force that continually shifts depending on the information we receive on- and off-line. Even looking exclusively at online influence, we can’t neglect nor ignore how closely linked it is to activity offline. The logic behind Klout only works if you make one of two big assumptions: either we make online decisions in complete isolation of what happens offline, and thus can accurately gauge influence by looking only online; or, the two run so closely together that all online interactions immediately reflect our offline ones, thus relieving the need to observe offline behaviour. I don’t buy either of those assumptions. Do you?
What’s especially problematic is that when people opt in to something like Klout, inevitably some folks will attempt to game the system by focusing on interactions that raise their score. (Klout isn’t alone in this issue, even something somewhat reputable like credit scores can be gamed by focusing on certain actions that disproportionately affect the value.) As the values get skewed, Klout becomes even less meaningful and may in fact become harmful. Why? Because when Klout devotees begin to shift behaviour to mimic what Klout values as influential online, this is fertile ground for the start of a bubble.
Bubbles occur when a crowd of people stop trusting their own private knowledge and instead begin acting in ways they believe others want them to act. The classic example, given in James Surowiecki’s excellent book Wisdom of Crowds, is a beauty pageant, which only works when judges assign a winner independent of one another.
Bubble-like behaviour occurs if judges were to choose a winner, say, not based their own evaluations but based on guesses of whom the other judges may favour. Expectations then become decoupled from reality, as layers of assumptions pile up; to use another example, stock prices soar unrealistically when sellers stop using financial metrics for guidance, instead guessing how much someone else might pay and buyers purchase based on their own assumptions of the price at which they could potentially resell. As people begin to act online based on the expectations of others in order to that boost their Klout score, we’ll move farther and farther away from any real quantification of influence.
I had hoped Klout would stay within the confines of marketing and communications, where it would have limited harm. However, as we’ve seen with HR departments of companies wanting greater access to Facebook accounts of employees, it doesn’t seem far-fetched that companies, disoriented by the speed of social media, will soon pry into Klout scores as well. A future where this happens will be a less spontaneous one, where people will angle for retweet and wall post likes with one eye on their Klout scores. Before we leap onto the Klout bandwagon, It’s important to remember a key fact: while Klout can infer that Kim Kardashian is influential, it remains as lost as we are figuring out reasons why.