Sing Now The Praises Of Klout’s Klumsy Kludges

Over the last month, Charles Stross memorably called the online influence measurer Kloutthe internet equivalent of herpes,” Rohn Miller of Social Media Today exhorted people to “Delete your Klout profile now,” John Scalzi lambasted it as “sad, and possibly evil,” the New York Times wrote about parents’ outrage when they discovered Klout was autogenerating accounts for minors, Flout caustically mocked them with the insincerest form of flattery, and perhaps most damning of all–it’s one thing to be controversial, another and far worse to be irrelevant–our own Alexia Tsotsis convincingly argued that “Nobody Gives A Damn About Your Klout Score.”

Why all the hate? Stross cites privacy violations, but it can’t be that alone which inspires such vitriol. As Mathew Ingram points out, “it’s hard to see why Klout should be criticized for collecting information about people based on their public web activity.” Scalzi gets more to the heart of things: “Klout exists to turn the entire Internet into a high school cafeteria, in which everyone is defined by the table at which they sit.” Oh noes! It’s an online popularity contest! Stone them!

Let me offer a different take: Klout, as flawed and clumsy as it is–and I’ll admit that in many ways it’s a terrible service–is an admirable pioneer, a first innovative step in an important direction.

Everyone keeps talking about the reputation economy, but there’s never been any such thing. Reputation, influence, and popularity have always been at least as big a deal as money–we’re social animals, it’s hardwired–but you can’t have an economy until you’ve quantified its measure. Klout is the first example of that quantification that’s gotten any kind of mass traction. That’s important.

Let’s talk about Whuffie. Never heard of it? Crack open a copy of Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, a novel by Canadian author Cory Doctorow that depicts a post-scarcity society where money has been replaced by “Whuffie”, a measure of reputation. (Doctorow doesn’t shy away from the dark side of his speculative future, either. At one point his protagonist falls into depression, loses all his Whuffie, is shunned by all … and the reputation-economy utopia suddenly looks a lot more like a Darwinian high-school popularity contest.)

Is Whuffie the future? Well, no, money isn’t exactly about to go away. But I do believe there’s an aspect of prophecy to Doctorow’s vision: once a real reputation economy exists, it will become increasingly important, as it thrives and grows in parallel with–and interwoven with–the monetary economy.

Will Klout be the measure of that forthcoming reputation economy? Well, er, no again. Klout only tries to measure “influence”, rather than the complex nuances of “reputation”, and it doesn’t even really succeed at that. The results of its allegedly sophisticated signal-crunching tend to range from the bewildering to the bizarre, making you wonder if, in fact, its algorithms were scribbled on the back of a napkin one drunken night and thrust hastily into production.

But I still have some considerable sympathy for Klout’s CEO Joe Fernandez, and his response to the recent onslaught. The hate that Klout elicits is wildly disproportionate to what it deserves. In the long run, the reputation economy will be incredibly important, and the company that codifies and defines that economy will be…

…probably a company that doesn’t exist yet. I expect Klout will ultimately become to the real reputation economy what was to social media; a trailblazer that became a footnote. But that’s still no small thing, and certainly no cause to hate. Let’s all lighten up and give them, well, a little more credit. They’ve earned it.