With each passing year, it gets harder to define social networking. In the beginning, we were satisfied with simply poking each other and writing on walls. Then we started making our relationships official online and using hashtags to follow and comment on breaking news. Now, thanks to the online social aggregating website Klout, we can put a figure on our social networking skills and even get rewarded for them. The question is: what does a low or high Klout score mean, and does the score really matter?

If you’ve never heard of Klout before, here’s a quick rundown: Klout is a website co-founded by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs Joe Fernandez and Bihn Tran in 2009. The website quantifies a user’s “influence” across his or her social networking accounts from websites such as Twitter, Facebook, Google+, YouTube, LinkedIn and Tumblr. Each user is then assigned a score between 1 and 100 (1 being socially dead and 100 indicating demi-god status) based on data points collected from these websites, like Twitter follower count, number of @mentions, retweets, Facebook “likes”, Google +1s, and so on. Despite the fact that some people have never heard of Klout, chances are that they already have a Klout score – especially if they have a Twitter account (all Twitter users automatically get their scores calculated, although they may “opt out”). In July of last year, Klout claimed to have calculated 100 million Klout scores.

You might ask yourself: doesn’t that just take all the fun out of social networking? Well, you’re not alone. Since its inception, Klout has been met with a lot of criticism. Science fiction author and blogger John Scalzi, in his guest article for CNNMoney titled “Why Klout Scores Are Possibly Evil”, points out that Klout provides a service that no one needed which simply creates unnecessary pressure and tension in social networking. “It seems that what Klout exists to do is create status anxiety – to saddle you with a popularity ranking, and then make you feel insecure about it and whether you’ll lose that ranking unless you engage in certain activities that aren’t necessarily in your interest, but are in Klout’s.”

In April this year, reported the story of Sam Fiorella, a marketing executive with 15 years of experience who got passed over for a job because his Klout score of 34 was too low (and because he had never heard of Klout). The guy who got the job had a Klout score of 67. “Fifteen years of accomplishments weren’t as important as that score,” Fiorella said at the time.

Perdeby conducted a survey to find out if Tuks students knew what Klout was or cared what their Klout scores were. 87% of the students surveyed said they didn’t know what Klout was and only 10% admitted to actually checking their Klout scores regularly. “If I gave a damn about popularity I would’ve never left high school,” says Nompumelelo Zithonga, a second-year economics student. On the topic of Klout scores affecting career prospects, she adds, “The only scores employers should care about are the ones on my academic record.”

Despite the dissension, Klout has maintained its success and has even started rewarding high-scoring users with material gifts (called Klout Perks) like laptops, cellphones, VIP stays at exclusive hotels and discounts on designer clothes. The best Perks are reserved for scores between 80 and 100, the logic being that if you give influential people freebies they’ll promote the brands to other less influential people. This has caused a fair amount of debate: supporters say that it’s an effective marketing strategy, while others have called it exploitation. You can guess for yourself what score range each of the conflicting camps are in.

Just a few weeks ago, Barack Obama surpassed Justin Bieber’s Klout score. Justin Bieber’s score dropped from a perfect 100 (demi-god!) to a 92 while Obama’s went from hovering in the mid-90s to a 99. Why is this important? Klout’s algorithm has been chided for being dubious since its launch, with many people claiming that there is no real way of measuring how influential a person is. Scalzi writes, “I could rank your influence online. If you like: I’ll add your number of Twitter followers to your number of Facebook friends, subtract the number of MySpace friends, laugh and point if you’re still on Friendster, take the square root, round up to the nearest integer and add six. That’s your Scalzi Number (mine is 172). You’re welcome.”

We’d all like to pretend that we don’t care how many Twitter followers we have and whether or not our well thought out status updates get “likes”. It’s safer to act like we’re above popularity and social hierarchies, but truthfully, most of us aren’t. The reason that Klout is so successful is because of our own morbid fascination with how important we are. So whether your score is in the low twenties or on the heels of the leader of the free world is only as relevant as you want it to be. That’s until they’re start offering real money as a Perk – then we can all start spelling clout with a K.

Photo: Eleanor Harding

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