Win friends and influence people
Following in the digital footsteps of "brain dump", "bricks and clicks", "netiquette" and "gamification", the ever-widening lexicon of hipster tech jargon now has another buzzword - "Klout".
In a rare show of logic, it is what it says: a measure of influence, the standard attributed to the millions of social-media pundits short-speaking, posting and linking their way to stardom online.
With half a billion people now using the global shout-out of Twitter, the popularity stakes are being raised for fame seekers, played out not just in how many followers they've amassed, but in the impact of their virtual voice.
San-Francisco-based analytics company Klout scrapes social-network data across Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Foursquare and more, assigning people a score that ranges from 1 to 100 as a measure of reach, amplification and network impact - basically a "cool" factor for thought leaders, celebs and experts who have sway every time they post an opinion.
Eccentric pop princess Lady Gaga has 27 million "little monsters" in her Twitter grasp, and a Klout score of 92. The leader of the free world, US President Barack Obama, sits on 99 and 18 million followers. But neither can match the social-media kudos of pop star Justin Bieber, whose "Beliebers" secured him the only perfect score of 100, until it dipped back to 92 with recent changes in the algorithm.
Klout spokeswoman Lynn Fox says jaw surgery in 2007 gagged creator and chief executive Joe Fernandez from real-world conversation, which led him to create a gauge of the web's most prolific chatterboxes.
"The whole premise behind Klout is that everyone has influence, not just celebrities and politicians and media, so everybody should have the opportunity to understand their influence and be recognised for it," Fox says.
Since then, Klout has become social media's "vanity" score, using 400 inputs from 12 billion data points to rate more than 100 million users.
Fox says Klout's algorithm considers variables such as retweets and @ mentions on Twitter, comments and Likes on Facebook, interactions on Foursquare and Google+, and real-world influence including people's reported title on LinkedIn and the page importance of their Wikipedia reference. "We look at the ability to drive action, not how many times you tweet, but how much interaction those tweets get," Fox says.
The naysayers contest that until Klout can cover all networks, including 15 million people on Pinterest, which doesn't have an open application programming interface (API), how can it be a solid indicator?
The other controversy is that Klout makes money from its assessment of their pulling power via commercial hook-ups. While it doesn't sell its data, it matches brands with movers and shakers according to their areas of "influence" through a Perks program offering free products.
LA's Playhouse nightclub has started waiving its $100 cover charge to guests with Klout scores of more than 50, with hotels and airlines offering similar benefits to the web 2.0's big hitters.
Social-media director Will Ockenden of PR company Lucre says Americans hold Klout scores in high regard, using them to assess job candidates and dish out upgrades and freebies to customers who score highly.
As a digital analyst who has monitored Klout, Ockenden is horrified at the importance assigned to the new media currency, which he thinks is "nonsense" as a means of rating reputation. "Services like Klout are seriously flawed, and provide an arbitrary social 'ranking' that doesn't take into consideration a whole range of factors such as quality of content, engagement or overall business influence," he says.
The PR director of Rewire Group, Kate Telfer, cites the example of the talking clock Big Ben's automatic Twitter feed, which has a Klout score of 48, because so many of its time tweets are commented on and favoured.
"Until recently, @big-ben-clock was deemed to be influential on drugs based on the fact that it regularly used the word 'bong' in its tweets. That clearly needs some work," she says.
In January, digital marketer Kevin Dam created a Twitter bot, @mobimediamarket, as an experiment to see what Klout score a spambot spitting out RSS feeds would generate. He was shocked to find it rated a 27, seven points higher than the average "real" person at that time, which he says put a serious dent in its authenticity.
While there have been cases in the US where job applicants have been rejected based on a low Klout score, Andrew Cross, the managing director of local recruitment company Ambition Technology, says the tally for the web's cool cats isn't even on the radar of Australian employers.
"Klout is still a long way from being used as a tool to select people," he says. "It may be more dominant in the digital media space where people expect you to have an online presence. But I've yet to see a Klout score on a resume."
Sydneysider Joe Hughes, 33, knows the system can be gamed. He moved up 20 Klout points in two months simply by checking in on Foursquare and Facebook and posting comments about each venue. He's now in competition with a friend to hit the "magical" 55 mark with dinner at a two-hat restaurant up for grabs - and VIP treatment when he visits the US later in the year.
Psychologist Jocelyn Brewer worries that scores such as Klout are feeding narcissists the positive feedback they need to support their inflated egos. "Narcissists have a connection with people who affirm their belief in themselves," she says. "Klout is like a caste system, with Justin Bieber as the high priest."
She says the rise of metrics such as Klout, Kred and Peer Index show how society now values information and exposure as capital. "From a primitive perspective, as hunters and gatherers we shared food to survive. Now we share knowledge, what we value in order to get recognised by the group - a hip new restaurant, products, that's the currency."
Brewer says Klout tells her she's influential about spies, which she finds amusing considering she's a school counsellor with no interest in espionage.
"It's all just numbers, and we make so much meaning out of numbers. Look at the HSC. I've got all my year 12 kids stressed out about what number they're going to get. Guess what - you'll still survive life."
Klout is being taken seriously by marketers looking to maximise budgets. Alex White, marketer for Victorian intellectual disability charity Inclusion Melbourne, used Klout recently as part of an advocacy campaign calling on Premier Ted Baillieu to implement a trial site for the National Disability Insurance Scheme. "When you have limited resources and are trying to publicise a cause on social media, a measure like Klout lets you decide where to put resources," White says.
Ben Bravery, a science communicator with Neuroscience Research Australia, is building up his institutes's Klout score as a means of getting greater exposure to their efforts to cure Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
He says that while some organisations are afraid to share content, he believes it's critical in raising global awareness.
"Sharing valuable content is social-media currency and helps to define your organisation as a conduit for information, especially in the scientific research arena where many people around the world are looking into the same diseases and disorders," Bravery says. While the Klout score doesn't indicate the quality of research, it may motivate people to follow a feed, read a research report or offer the greatest clout of all - funds.