In The New York Times, Stephanie Rosenbloom asks readers to “imagine a world in which we are assigned a number that indicates how influential we are.” That number would help determine our success at getting a job, hotel-room upgrade, break on a service, or free samples at the store. As Rosenbloom tells us, imagine no more, companies, such as Klout, PeerIndex, and Twitter Grader, are mining our social media activities and assigning us influence scores. Social scoring is based on our online social network activity, including the number of followers, friends, and the extent to which our online activity gets people moving. If if you recommend a salon to your social network friends and they follow suit, your good word has two functions. You’re doing a good thing for your friends and the salon (let’s hope), and now you’re doing good for you. Because you have inspired people to take action, your influence score may rise. In the present, people with high scores get preferential treatment by retailers. More than 2,500 marketers are now using Klout’s data. Audi will begin offering Facebook users promotions based on their Klout score. The Las Vegas Palms Hotel and Casino is using Klout data to give highly rated guests an upgrade or tickets to a show. In the future, those scores could be used by prospective employers, friends, and dates.
On the one hand, this market trend has something important to commend — its visibility. Consumers can find out their influence scores and work to raise them. By contrast, the impact of behavioral advertising is often hidden. We are tracked and scored in databases and have no idea how it shakes out. Joe Turow’s excellent book Niche Envy explains that consumers know very little about how their data personalizes market transactions. Some individuals may end up as haves and others as have-nots, but neither group knows the extent of it. As Turow explains, “our simple corner store is turning into a Marrakech bazaar–except that the merchant has been analyzing our diaries while we negotiate blindfolded, behind a curtain, through a translator.” On the other hand, the information isn’t perfect and the algorithms secret so people may waste time doing things that they believe will raise their scores but don’t. But that isn’t really troubling, unless every job or blog post had the effect we hoped it might. What’s troubling is the trend’s implications for society and culture. It seems old school to say that people blog, make friends, and engage in online chats to play, experiment, and create culture. Now, they may feel pressured to do all of these things as a matter of economic necessity. We may forgo experimentation for product endorsements, and idle chatter for better job prospects. This makes our children’s choice to engage with social media seem like less of choice than a carefully cultivated necessity. It also spells far more trouble for people who are already victimized, those who cyber mobs target with lies, threats, technical attacks, and privacy invasions. They go offline or write under pseudonyms to protect themselves. We now know that those choices (if we can call it that) cost more economically than they already do aside from the many other costs that my work discusses. I imagine there’s more to this influence score story but I thought I’d share my initial take.