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.

Attention and whacking the social media piñata for ever more

I had never come across Humdog on the web. Perhaps I wasn’t interested or more likely I was too optimistic about the opportunities of the Internet, but I finally came across her, quoted by Adam Curtis in “All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace”. In her essay Pandora’s Vox Redux published in 1994 (a year before I’d seen a webpage and two years before I learned to code HTML) Humdog, whose real life name was Carmen Hermosillo wrote amusingly:

“so-called electronic communities encourage participation in fragmented, mostly silent, microgroups who are primarily engaged in dialogues of self-congratulation. in other words, most people lurk; and the ones who post, are pleased with themselves.”

She continues the theme discussing how people commoditise themselves on the web, forecasting the rise of social media:

” i created my interior thoughts as a means of production for the corporation that owned the board i was posting to, and that commodity was being sold to other commodity/consumer entities as entertainment. that means that i sold my soul like a tennis shoe and i derived no profit from the sale of my soul.”

Is it surprising that I had never heard of humdog online? I have a suspicion that there amounts to a conspiracy of silence within the online community. Dissenting voices aren’t repeated and the over enthusiastic Pollyanna class that claims dissent as either Luddism or at least a minority report. But social media rose after this and now we are seemingly stuck with it as a way of getting on in the world. There was once online people and offline people. The web was once a so-modern and so-convenient hobby for technophiles, and therefore was optional, but like most technologies the use of the web and now social media has quickly become an obligation inseparable from other parts of our lives.

Technology is culture and culture is humanity. What starts as fiddling with a gadget becomes indistinguishable from the social practices it then supports. Currently there is much to gain and optimism and enthusiasm sells, and so the critical are labelled stick-in-the-muds. Therefore people turn themselves into zealous advocates, because in the attention economy you must be passionate to be in the running of being heard. Why would you listen to the least passionate? Why would you listen to the quiet and restrained thoughtful voices?

But this feels like a bubble and when bubbles burst, they do so with consequences.

Before the budget airlines people had a nice seat, a drink and a packet of peanuts. Then the classic airlines went bust and the budget airlines put up their prices to what the normal airlines charged but now you get with a nasty seat, no drink and no peanuts. I fear we are entering a world where our working lives are dominated by non-productive self marketing. Where it was once exceedingly difficult to get any attention because the means of communication were expensive to manipulate, now there are low barriers to entry, but a paucity of attention. In order to get attention we have to repeatedly thump the Internet using a stick made of our own identities. It’s become a piñata that we are forced to whack at blindly using social media.

So the new photographer or writer or IT consultant will spend a significant part of her working hours stimulating the social layer to get attention, instead of working for monetary gain or developing as a photographer/ writer/ consultant. So the ideas about some giving way of the Coasian floor, popularised by Clay Shirky, where new forms of communication arise as the cost of transaction reduce, might begin to go into reverse as we get into an arms race. The costs of communication and transaction may increase. Quitting or reducing social activities on the Internet will mean the attention that you require from your customers, will as a matter of certainty go to your competitors. As people swarm onto a new social platform, you must swarm with them, but your presence on the old social platforms must be maintained. Your Web site, and your blog, and your Facebook, and your Twitter, and your G+ and your Flickr, and your 500px – this all rises to a crescendo of commoditisation when you will spend a good part of your working week thumping away. Whether your trade is photography, poetry or IT consultancy, you’ll spend more time working social and less time on what you can be paid for.

This hits at a time that selling information, whether that be ideas or bits in form of music, video, pictures or code is ranging from the progressively difficult to virtually impossible, the majority of this becomes a massive overhead. Some people enjoy gaming the system and put in place a variety of mechanistic means to automate the social overhead ranging from bots on twitter to (my personal hatred) automated commenting and favouriting on Flickr. Whether the sociopathic irony of these programmatic simulacra of humanity is lost to those that pervert the basis of the social medium isn’t clear to me. It is proof that if a game is worth winning it’s worth cheating to do so and I am always happier to receive attention on my photos than I am to expend the energy in commenting on others and finding new and interesting people to follow. Part of this is the overall game of fame that we all want to have an asymmetric relationship and to be more followed than follower means that we will have made it.

But the overall perversity of this is doubled when considering peoples motivation for sharing socially has in part to seeking a form of deeply human connection. A heartfelt comment on a photo; an amusing riposte on Twitter. I think that much of this is just bound to fail in comparison to real human relationships in real life but we don’t have a filter for this yet as we are unconsciously incompetent when it comes to social media. We think we get it but we do not know what we are unaware of and because we are short or the social cues that would allow us to really know whether we are successful or not we succumb to numbers. To which, I will move to next.