At least once in their lives, most social media users probably have felt the drive to amass more Facebook friends than their peers, accrue more Twitter followers than their colleagues, or build more LinkedIn connections than their competitors.
But throughout most of social media’s lifespan, nobody was keeping official score.
Now someone is.
For the past few years, companies such as Klout and PeerIndex have been judging, ranking and scoring how influential people are online. To calculate scores, Klout uses public data from Twitter, Facebook (if a user chooses) and LinkedIn (if a user chooses) to calculate an overall "klout" score ranging from 0 to 100. Soon data from FourSquare will enter the mix.
“We’re interested in engagement, whether people are responding to your message and whether your message is spreading,” said Megan Berry, Klout’s marketing manager. “Metrics we use include how many times you get re-tweeted, @mentioned, liked, and more.”
A score above 70 usually belongs to a celebrity or someone who has attained substantial authority (clout) in a particular field and generates considerable online engagement.
A score below 20 usually belongs to someone with only light Twitter activity and resulting engagement.
But some critics maintain that clout, an abstract concept, is not subjectively quantifiable, and that klout scores are thus an unreliable marker of how influential a person is online.
“If you look at something like height, which has physical definition, and happiness which is abstract, clout is much closer to happiness ― it’s intangible,” said Alex Braunstein, a statistician and engineer for Chomp, a search engine for apps, who has extensively analyzed klout measurements and the data that go into them. “If someone tells you on a scale of 1 to 10 that their happiness is level 8, you have no way of knowing what that means for that individual.”
[Read also: ‘ Social Media Statistics: Mind-Boggling Facts About the Medium.’]
Is klout measureable?
Because it’s unknowable what ingredients constitute true online influence, it’s unknowable what measurements should compose a klout score, Braunstein added. Plus, it’s not fully transparent what factors do go into it.
“It would seem that if my stats are uniformly better than yours, then my klout score should be higher,” Braunstein said.
However, that’s not always the case. For example, Braunstein found that Paul Graham, the leader of the seed-fund provider Y Combinator, would seem to carry more clout than Y Combinator itself because his statistics were consistently higher. Graham had 15,000 more followers, 4,500 more re-tweets, 3,500 more re-tweeters and 400 more Twitter mentions than Y Combinator. They both received the same klout score, 57.
This is partly because more than the aforementioned statistics are factored into one’s klout. For example, Klout also looks at how influential the person who is sharing your message is. If Hillary Clinton retweets your tweet, it carries more weight than if your neighbor does.
But because the sharer’s own influence (Clinton's vs. your neighbor's) is determined by his or her own klout score, Braunstein says, that adds to the subjectivity of the rating.
In other words, klout begets more klout.
This is becoming manifest in the tangible world: High scores from Klout (which was founded in 2008) and PeerIndex (begun in 2009) are translating into actual clout.
More than 2,500 companies have linked into Klout’s network ― compared with 300 a little over a year ago ― to identify the highest influencers. And companies including Disney, Subway and Virgin are giving away freebies to some of the highest scorers ― hotel upgrades and theater tickets, among other perks.
“The Palm Las Vegas, for example, is looking at klout scores to decide whether they should give someone a free upgrade,” said Klout's Berry. “The Huffington Post is looking for top influencers.”
To those who deem this one too many ways in which companies track us, Berry responds that marketers have been doing this for ages.
“It’s similar to looking at a customer based on lifetime spending, just that klout lets businesses and vendors add a new factor when they evaluate customers,” Berry said.
And while it may appear that this gives more power to the already powerful, the purpose of Klout is in fact quite the opposite, Berry said.
“Some of the top scorers are celebrities, yes, but also everyday people,” she said. “A guy who is a designer and who has become influential might have a high score if he’s steering the conversation in that field. We’re helping people understand how they influence people online. They can learn how to improve their influence based more on content than celebrity status.”
Still, celebrity would inherently generate more followers than non-celebrity, and more followers inherently increase the likelihood of re-tweets or mentions. This, in turn, increases klout. How else to explain Charlie Sheen’s score of 86, or Justin Bieber’s score of 100?