When the Australian online fashion retailer Jasu launched in 2012, only shoppers with a high “Klout score” could gain access to the e-store for the first two weeks (Safe 2012). Based in San Francisco, Klout is an online rating service which measures a person’s online influence (Britton 2011). Klout scores are calculated based on the size of a person’s online network, the content they create and how others interact with the user (Britton 2011).
In 2012, Klout’s vice president of platform, Matt Thomson, predicted people with high Klout would soon “board planes earlier, get free access to VIP airport lounges, stay in better hotel rooms and receive deep discounts from retail stores and flash-sale outlets” (Stevenson 2012). However, Klout was unable to convert average users, or even tech-savvy social media enthusiasts, into caring about their scores.
Klout stirred controversy after its rating system deemed teenage popstar Justin Bieber more influential than US President Barack Obama (Stevenson 2012). After this incident, Klout overhauled its algorithms, retiring its “influence” measurement system in favour of “reputation and expertise” scores (Kerry 2015).
Yet Klout’s algorithmic approach to measuring evasive, enigmatic human attributes remains problematic. Reputation and expertise are extremely fluid, contingent and precarious personal attributes (Hearn 2010, p.423). As inherently subjective, abstract and contextual affective qualities, a person’s reputation and expertise is impossible to pin down with a single metric. Nonetheless, online reputation measurement and management systems continue to translate individuals’ lived identities into easily understood numbers and ratings.
A significant ethical problem arises when this is information is mined for value by corporations, brand managers and marketers. Online rating and ranking systems have become a valuable resource for major brands and businesses seeking to build meaningful relationships with influencers (Peterson 2013). For example, Telstra’s digital customer support team, recruited to answer tweets, Facebook comments and Crowdsupport forum posts, uses the social software platform Lithium to view users’ Klout scores (Taylor 2015). A customer with high Klout may receive preferential treatment based on the impact he or she can have on the perception of the company and brand (Jarman 2013). Yet shouldn’t all customers be treated equally and with the best service, regardless of their social capital?
The plethora of web tools and analytics that have emerged recently to measure, manage, represent and structure our personal reputations has led to the rise of an online reputation economy (Hearn 2010, p.423). In this contemporary structure, attention is monetised and notoriety or fame is capital (Hearn 2010, p.427). As reputation emerges as a new standard of value, we see a shift from the idea of “the self at work” towards “the self as work” (Hearn 2010, p.426).
The practices of promotional self-production or self-branding are purposefully undertaken by individuals in order to garner attention, reputation and potentially, profit (Hearn 2010, p.422). The promises attached to the achievement of a valuable personal digital reputation pressures individuals to routinely subject themselves to abstract systems of measurement through which their value is constituted. As a result, individuals are reduced to what Neil Postman (1992, p.138 cited in Hakanen 2002, p.247) calls a “calculable person”, ‘one who knows his or her value as calculated by an external, refereed source’.
While Klout is largely derided as shallow and cynical, research has revealed that a user’s Klout score has a significant impact on perceived judgements of credibility (Edwards et al. 2013, p.A14). Results demonstrated that a mock Twitter page with a high Klout score was perceived as higher in dimensions of credibility than the identical mock Twitter page with a moderate or low Klout score (Edwards et al. 2013, p.A14).
These findings support Brown and Duguid’s (2002, p.21) frenzied visions of an information age in which “adding info or something similar to your name doesn’t simply add to but multiple your market value”. Indeed, Alice Marwick’s (2013, p.76) research into the technology and social media industry in and around San Francisco suggests that the ability to command and maintain a large audience have become modern status symbols, implying a level of influence, visibility and attention.
Although these qualities are lauded in the Web 2.0 climate, Marwick’s (2013, p.107) astute analysis of high-status technology professionals revealed that the technology scene ascribes higher value to intelligence, passion and creativity over attention and visibility. In this way, while social capital is an indispensable new form of online currency, the idea of “the self at work” is still the most important form of value generation in the online reputation economy.
Cloaking its existence under the rubric of personal empowerment, Klout directs human meaning-making and self-identity in highly motivated and profitable ways. It might be time, however, to retreat from the exuberance at online measurement systems and to consider their value more carefully. Can it really be useful, after all, to address people as a quantifiable value for the market and to redefine complex human attributes such as reputation into a language of science and statistics? To participate in the online reputation economy and not merely to be rated, ranked or listed requires an understanding that what matters most is earning one’s own position, not just counting on (or counting up) Klout.
Britton, A 2011, What Is Your Online Klout?, Adrian Britton, weblog post, 2 July, viewed 11 March 2016, <http://www.adrian-britton.com/2011/07/02/what-is-your-online-klout/>.
Brown, J & Duguid, P 2002, ‘Limits to information’, in The Social Life of Information, Harvard Business School Press, Boston, p.11-33.
Edwards, C, Spence, PR, Gentile, CJ, Edwards, A & Edwards, A 2013, ‘How much Klout do you have…A test of system generated cues on source credibility’, Computers in Human Behaviour, vol.29, no.5, p.A12-A16.
Hakanen, E 2002, ‘Lists as social grid: Ratings and rankings in everyday life’, Social Semiotics, vol.12, no.3, p.245-254.
Hearn, A 2010, ‘Structured feeling: Web 2.0, online ranking and rating, and the digital ‘reputation’ economy’, Ephemera: Theory & Politics in Organization, vol.10, no.3/4, p.421-438.
Jarman, P 2013, Are All Customers Created Equal? Their Real Monetary Value and Why It Matters, WIRED Innovation Insights, weblog post, 6 September, viewed 11 March 2016, <http://insights.wired.com/profiles/blogs/are-all-customers-created-equal-the-real-monetary-value-of-your?xg_source=activity#axzz44j9Pz1jW>.
Kerry, B 2015, ‘Does Klout Have Value For Digital Marketing Campaigns?’, Social Media Today, 11 June, viewed 12 March 2016, <http://www.socialmediatoday.com/marketing/benkerrypreciseenglish/2015-06-09/does-klout-have-value-digital-marketing-campaigns>.
Marwick, AE 2013, ‘Leaders and Followers’, in Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity, and Branding in the Social Media Age, Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut, p.73-111.
Peterson, T 2013, ‘Klout for Business Is Only First Step to a Serious Marketing Platform’, Adweek, 20 March, viewed 12 March 2016, <http://www.adweek.com/news/technology/klout-business-only-first-step-serious-marketing-platform-148063>.
Safe, G 2012, ‘Using your Klout: online store’s strict door policy’, Sydney Morning Herald, 24 August, viewed 11 March 2016, <http://www.smh.com.au/technology/technology-news/using-your-klout-online-stores-strict-door-policy-20120823-24ou7.html>.
Stevenson, S 2012, ‘What your Klout score really means’, WIRED, 24 April, viewed 11 March 2016, <http://www.wired.com/2012/04/ff_klout/>.
Taylor, J 2015, ‘Inside Telstra’s digital contact centre’, ZDNet, 30 March, viewed 11 March 2016, <http://www.zdnet.com/article/inside-telstras-digital-contact-centre/>.