Arts & Literature

Art in Paradise: Retweet This?

The online world is threatening to spill over into the real one in alarming style.

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Thursday, June 28, 2012

On a recent visit to the Holyoke Merry-Go-Round, I watched in amazement as, among the laughing toddlers, adults and teenagers spun around enjoying the spectacle that unfolded in front of them on the tiny screens of their phones. Surely, I thought, this tail-swallowing self-absorption and disengagement isn't going to lead people anywhere good.

If you feel the same way—if you don't like Facebook, don't have a Twitter feed, and don't maintain a personal online brand with ceaseless vigor—well, you'd better be concerned about your Klout, bucko.

If you don't know what that is, well, it may explain small matters like why you didn't get a job you interviewed for, why you never heard about the hotel discount fellow travelers got, and why your complaint to management about the frog in your bidet fell on deaf ears. A Klout score, in short, is a 0-100 rating of one's online "influence" via a proprietary formula using social media as its data source. Things like retweets, friend responses and number of interactions with high-Klout people all go into a calculation that's updated daily.

In April's Wired magazine, Seth Stevenson reports that an executive named Sam Fiorella, who'd consulted for major companies and brands, was dumbstruck in the face of a job interviewer's request for his Klout score. Fiorella, like many folks, didn't even know what it was. He didn't get the job, though he'd reportedly been recruited for it.

Stevenson continues: "In February, the enterprise-software giant Salesforce.com introduced a service that lets companies monitor the Klout scores of customers who tweet compliments and complaints; those with the highest scores will presumably get swifter, friendlier attention from customer service reps. In March, luxury shopping site Gilt Groupe began offering discounts proportional to a customer's Klout score.

"Matt Thomson, Klout's VP of platform, says that a number of major companies—airlines, big-box retailers, hospitality brands—are discussing how best to use Klout scores. Soon, he predicts, people with formidable Klout will board planes earlier, get free access to VIP airport lounges, stay in better hotel rooms, and receive deep discounts from retail stores and flash-sale outlets."

There has been appropriate outrage among the very folks who potentially stand to benefit—bloggers, tweeters, and the online chattering class. Most of them rail against the notion of a proprietary formula holding such sway over people's lives, like some FICO score gone wild. Others point out that this is just another form of profiling. As someone who's never texted anyone nor tweeted anything, I find that logic especially relevant.

A quick look around the Klout site reveals a bald-faced plan to overhaul the non-virtual world based on one's time spent developing an online persona: "Earn Klout Perks: exclusive access to products and experiences from top brands. Put your Klout Score on your resume to land a sweet job or use it to get better customer service. ... As an influencer, you get first access to Perks you can share with your friends and audience. Influencers have taken a new Audi for a weekend-long test drive, gone with their kids to an early screening of a Disney movie, and brought home new HP laptops loaded with films."

Jeremiah Owyang, one of the best known of the online chattering class who specializes in things like telling companies how best to use social media, extrapolated a terrifying future vision from all this, claiming that new technology will enable phones to recognize you and display things like your Klout scores instantly, telling store clerks, dates, whoever, whether you matter, and whether you'll have to pay for your next drink.

Peruse all the online commentary about Klout, and you'll quickly discover that a disturbing number of folks rail against the company, but not as a matter of larger principle. The problem for them isn't the wholesale invasion of privacy nor the disgusting reductivity of tagging people with a number in order to judge them. It's simply that Klout is unfairly limited in its scope.

It seems that Klout and others would love nothing better than that old school reactionaries give over on issues like privacy, opening their transactions and actions in real and virtual worlds to data collection in order to build a matrix that more accurately depicts influence, allowing companies to more easily interact with the most influential among us, lavish perks in order to have praise retweeted, friend networks alerted.

That trend should alarm us far more than Klout itself, an effort that would be pure comedy if not for the insidiousness of its premise. The obliviousness with which many folks seem ready to embrace a Klout-like vision points to just how ripe we are for a privacy-free future.

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