I have a running joke I make during conferences. When I meet a self-described new media guru/ninja/expert and they start yapping about their Klout score, I can take that as shorthand to stop listening. They’re not what they say they are, and I’ve forgotten more about social media than they know.

An exaggeration for sure, and a snarky one at that. But there’s an undercurrent to my joke.

I hate Klout.

Haaaaate it.

I don’t hate the idea (after all, I’ve played with it in an attempt to figure it out and even have my own Klout score), but I hate what it turns people into when they start mingling and talking about the social Web. For the uninitiated, Klout is an attempt to measure influence in the social Web by taking your activity on social media products such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Foursquare, etc., and the activity surrounding your activity (retweets, social referrals … basically all the +1 and Like stuff) and turn it into a score. You also can gift Klout “points” to people who you find influential on topics. Your Klout score is a measure of your influence (the higher the better) and you also are scored as an influencer on different topics.

There are a few problems with the system. First, the measurement isn’t transparent even if we generally know how it works (talk about a lot of stuff, get replies and retweets) and that makes it hard to interpret. I have a score of 69. Um, good? I guess? Second, influence is relative. I was talking to one of my students about Klout today and she noted she was called an influencer about the iPad – even though she doesn’t own one. What does she do? She talks a lot on Twitter about how she wants one and I mock her by noting I have one. So we are creating a cycle that Klout interprets as influence when really it’s just sophomoric humor. Heck of a metric you have there, Klout.

Lastly, it’s ripe for abuse even if the intent is sometimes pure. I see social marketers get in these online rings of conversation with other marketers. They talk up each others’ stuff, retweet each other, and reply to each other. They grant each other Klout points. Not surprisingly, their Klout scores are through the roof compared to many – except that they generally live in a social media echo chamber. This reciprocity is what happens in social spheres for sure and it’s not like they are purposely trying to rig the system (although sometimes this happens), but it does call into question the value of the whole enterprise when it can be manipulated. This isn’t external influence, it’s merely internal conversation.

I’m bothered by it because Klout is trying to say their score equals influence. It’s not. Your Klout score is your Klout score, and that’s it. Sound obvious? As a social scientist who deals with measurement, I think this statement of the obvious matters. Measures give us scores that can only be interpreted in the context of what we measured, and thus it’s always up to interpretation. That’s why saying you have 1 of something means nothing. When you tack on terms like “centimeter” or “inch” then we get to the real stuff, where you can start comparing and quantifying value.

Klout doesn’t have that. I have a score of 69. Relative to others, I can assess that, but what does that mean when I don’t know exactly how it’s computed? And what does a 69 mean to someone who’s never heard of Klout?

What is Klout good for, then? It’s good for fun. It’s a good laugh, or a general gauge. I look at it like being asked what the weather is like outside. Klout is sticking your head out the door. It’s not a real measurement that means something, especially if you see how my wife and I often disagree on the real temperature.

But there’s a larger problem with Klout, and that’s that the echo chamber promotes self confidence where there shouldn’t be any. Business folks who bring in consultants often don’t speak the language of social media; in that context, things like Klout scores often wow them. They have no idea what it means, but it’s similar to telling my computer-unsavvy mom that her 500 MB hard drive is huge. I mean, 500 sounds like a LOT. It’s not in this day and age, but without context it doesn’t matter.

So what Klout becomes for some is a dishonest way to sell expertise. I have a score of 69. It says I’m a “pundit” whatever the heck that means. Impressive to the uninitiated, but complete drivel if you get the social web at all or understand the lack of information in how such measures are put together.

Some talk up Klout scores to clients innocently because they don’t know better. The scum of the social media marketing field know exactly what they’re doing. It’s hucksterism, enabled by Klout. People who pimp their Klout score at conferences might as well wear a “Hi, I’m a clueless social media expert” on their lapel. It shouldn’t be hard to see the aforementioned problems with Klout if you get – truly get – the social Web and how online conversation happens.

Influence is a heck of a lot harder to measure than a Klout score, and in fact it’s context based. I have no influence on Twitter, but I do have influence with some of the publics I associate with (such as new media nerds, my students, Lehigh folks, and so forth). The breadth of my influence is based on how you define my spheres, but try comparing even my influence at my university to a peer at another university. It’s impossible.

Here’s a simpler way of thinking about influence, and you don’t even need a score: If you need a Klout score to know if you are influential, then you aren’t influential. Influence isn’t in being retweeted or in talking a lot online. It’s in having ideas and values that move people to action, to think differently, to change their outlook. Chase that, not Klout.

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Why Klout is stupid
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