Klout, identity and gaming the system

I despise Klout. It purports to measure your on-line influence and does so on a simple 0 to 100 numeric scale. I don’t tweet much so I am a “31”. Many of my closer contacts are in the forties. I don’t know what that means. If someone hasn’t come across me they can check my Klout score to find out if I’m influential or not. This is easier to do than reading, comprehending and making a decision based on your own humanity, since basic arithmetic skills are taught widely across most developed societies and working out that 31 is less than 44 is an easy task. I didn’t opt into this, it happens as a result of the Twitter API, and I can’t opt out.

Modern man is obsessed with numbers because objective qualitative decisions are slow, and we don’t have the time and attention. Therefore we are falling prey to numbers. This is dangerous and reductive and will have unintended consequences that we will need to live with. I have no truck that it is just-a-bit-of-fun because social media is becoming a mandatory part of peoples lives, and is part of the coal face of work for countless professions.

Gamification is of course the latest stinky rotting fish on the foreshore and the flies are doing what they do best around it. Nearly all forms of social media I can think of have some form of numbers that could regarded as an objective: Flickr has views and favourites; Twitter has followers; Facebook has friends, comments and likes; G+ has +1s; and even blogs have page views.

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As all young men who ruefully examine a tape measure in a locked bedroom should be told there’s nothing wrong with measurement, but that letting your identity become a slave to it is a-bad-thing. First there is the innate human need to confirm we are normal, and then comes the desire to know we are special. We are at risk to slaving away at the numbers on these social tools in place of what we were there to do in the first place. My objective in sharing my photos on Flickr is to improve my photography by existing as part of a community of photographers. Unfortunately, many on Flickr  measure their self worth through the numbers alone. This leads to side effects of using social interaction and other techniques to get bigger numbers as an end in itself (including the worst sin of the perpetuation of photographic cliché but that can be another post).

Numbers of views and favourites in Flickr are at least natural systems of numbers. They are a simple count and therefore to my mind are somewhat valid. Flickr was, I think, unintentionally gamified by the creation of Interestingness – an unnatural system of algorithmic ranking that allows one’s picture to be entered in the Explore section, which is 500 of the most socially active pictures on Flickr that day. This was intended as a way of seeing some good pictures across the community, rather than an objective or a prize. This is a dumb way of choosing art of course and in any given day a good proportion of the pictures there will be artistically reprehensible, to the gnashing of teeth of those who believe their art is finer than examples in that day’s selection. Many people believe that the objective of Flickr is to get your picture into Explore, and they do all sorts of social media hard graft (“Nice shot. Please fave me.”) to attempt to game the system, although the exact composition of Interestingness is unknown. However for the most part Interestingness remains a thankfully unquantified measure, although you can order a set of pictures by Interestingness and compare them.

However, Klout squeezes out a number from its algorithmic digestive system that reduces one’s self down to a number. A number is bad enough, but the algorithm uses a complex balancing act of measures and sources and is therefore a man-made measure as it is impossible to derive “Influence” from SI units or simple counting. The problem is that firstly the algorithm is an invention of man, and secondly it a secret recipe owned by Klout Inc. We have no real idea how we are to be judged and no right to know. Klout can add any amount of bias they wish motivated by any political machinations they desire. They can sell numbers.

And instead of telling them, in the nicest possible way, to fuck off and leave us alone, the so-called influential shall pat themselves on the back for doing so well, and the supine less influential will start gaming the system, incentivised into improving their numbers. A large proportion of twitterers will be further tempted away from using it for what they intended in the first place – for forming social relationships, keeping up with people they know and like, sharing information they find interesting or the delight of amusing others. Instead we shall do what we are told.

I’ve seen a variety of mutterings within my own professional domain of intranets, about how an internal version of Klout would be a useful addition to the intranet manager’s toolbox of measurement and would provide a way of demonstrating levels of engagement or personal performance. I feel instinctively this would give rise to a horrific dystopia. Employees would be tempted into virtual presenteeism and gaming the system would distract from people’s day jobs (remember as David Snowden said, “Knowledge can only be volunteered it cannot be conscripted”). The temptation to set social targets for people to achieve brings with it a whole truckload of social control that is entirely unpalatable and its use in HR to measure people would be unethical.

Gamification is a next-big-thing. We are used to designing at a small scale, but the designers of social systems that become large scale on the web, and designers of social systems within organisations, must think very carefully about introducing these complex systems of measuring or incentivising their fellow man. It gets into people’s identities. These are political and moral choices and not web design. It is designing society. But what do I know, I’m only a 31.

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