Data, Rawls, and Rights: The Klout Society

The other day I was invited on Facebook to use an application called Klout. At the time I didn’t know what it was, and mentioned it to the person I was sitting with. They explained that it is supposed to measure an individual’s degree of online influence. A higher score meant your social ties were stronger (you post more often, more people view and interact with those posts, etc). A couple days later, I was bored and went ahead and allowed the app to do its thing. After some cogitation, the app spit out a number. Curious, I went to the web (as one does) to figure out what it all meant.

I had figured Klout as the latest in the web navel-gazing world–those apps and sites that function mostly as leeches on our ballooning senses of narcissism. Facebook is the biggest example, but there are others, like the apps that tell us which celebrities we look like. The egalitarianism of the internet hasn’t led to Friedman’s “flat world” online so much as an elevated one. The internet hasn’t made every user middle-class; instead, it’s elevated everyone to a king, master of their own domain (blogs included).

We love thinking about ourselves–the ability to do so reflectively is the source of much of our humanity. Our present day society loves numbers. It’s why when we go to the doctor we want to quantify ourselves as best as we can (height, weight, blood pressure, pulse, etc). Klout seizes on these attributes as well as another–that we are social animals–to attract us.

There’s no harm in learning your Klout score. It’s interesting–it gives you feedback about how you use your social media. I’m not convinced a higher Klout score makes you a better person, or even a more powerful one; it just means you are a savvy and constant user of online social media.

However.

You aren’t the only one who sees your Klout score. As this article details, Klout scores are somehow public (I haven’t done research into how companies can get access to your score, or how you might be able to change your privacy settings, but it seems like pretty much anybody can see it anytime; you also don’t need to have Klout to have a Klout score, which seems kind of unfair, especially if it’s going to be used as a metric in hiring processes, as it is in the opening anecdote from the linked story). Companies have started offering immediate perks to individuals with higher Klout scores; for example, a hotel might offer room upgrades to individuals with particularly high scores.

I’m late to the Klout-bashing party. There are plenty of people who have focused on why your score is meaningless. (Note: I think Klout treats all followers as equal right now, but it would be interesting to see a score calculated using weights for your followers’ scores.) However, I’m going to suggest something different. I’m going to say that Klout might be… well, not evil, but bad.

Not this bad, but bad.

Less than fifty years ago, John Rawls was working on his Theory of Justice. Eventually, he includes the conclusion that in a just society, every (public) action should help the least-fortunate (or at least not damage them). In this sense, he advocates for a society where once you are at the bottom, you will not be pushed further down. (This is compatible with, but not coterminous with, a society of general “negative feedback,” where every move away from the mean–whether towards greater or lesser wealth–is responded to with public actions that move towards these individuals back towards the mean. A tax that is higher on the wealthy than on the poor does this.)

Klout does the opposite. Klout gives the people who already have an advantage–the ones with high Klout scores–the chance to turn their online social capital into even greater social and economic capital. We should ask ourselves, where does a high Klout score come from? It comes from using the internet in a savvy and constant way. Who uses the internet constantly? People who have had internet the longest. People who have internet on their phones. In other words, the well-off. And once you have a high Klout score, you are only likely to get a higher one–a positive feedback loop, one that accelerates inequality.

For example, the story mentions hoteliers in Vegas giving room upgrades to individuals with high Klout scores. It’s easy to see how the process works in real time. Individual with high Klout score rolls up to the desk–clerk checks out the score and promotes them to a suite with a great view. That individual takes a great picture of the view, tagging the hotel and posting to Twitter and Facebook. That individual’s photo–ceteris paribus–will get more likes and retweets, since it is from the room with the view. Therefore the individual with the high Klout score will see his score go up, even though he hasn’t really done anything meritocratic.

Rather, there has been a transaction between the individual and the hotel, although the individual was party but not privy to it. The hotel calculated that this savvy Web user would tag them, thereby garnering free publicity for the hotel. In a sense, you can argue that the individual has been paid for his services. This is–if explicit rather than unsaid, as in the article’s example–a little more defensible of a scenario, except that it only has the potential to perpetuate inequality. In fact, as we just saw, it can create and accelerate its own inequality. This not only fails to satisfy Rawl’s request, but actually completes the opposite. That’s impressively bad. Borrowing slightly from Kant’s categorical imperative, would we want a world where the Klout test–walk into a store, have your score checked, and get shunted off to second-class service when you don’t have a 60 or above–is normal? I hope not. It reeks, if slightly, of another style of segregation that used to be popular in America–and even slight similarity to that kind of society is enough to be damning.

Giving people free upgrades, much less a job, on the basis of “influence” score with accuracy issues whiffs of division into the haves and have-nots. It gives privileges to a well-connected few–seen another way, it gives them rights the rest of us don’t have.

And that, folks, is not good.

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