A Plea to Klout

A Plea to KloutI’ve written about the gamification of influence before, and my main premise remains the same: gamifying influence dismantles trust systems. Some platforms, like connect.me, have actually attempted to create a system of trust based entirely on gamification. Klout has taken a smarter approach than that, but in the wake of the recent overhaul of the Klout system, I have a plea to make. Klout, I would like you to walk away from the gamification of influence. Please.

Klout has obviously been doing some soul-searching as a brand, because its most recent overhaul invites users to see more information about what signals play into the score. The result? Good press. “Klout is so much more transparent, now! This is a step in the right direction!”

But not everyone is congratulating Klout. Some authors choose to opine about how Klout’s system feeds into narcissism and is therefore devoid of value. Others believe that Klout is creating an unfair system where brands are encouraged to only reward people who have large audiences. All valid points. My problem with Klout? It’s squandering a huge opportunity to create a robust system of trust with credible signals that can be leveraged in a meaningful way by brands. How? By taking shortcuts with gamification. Specifically, +K.

Why is +K so bad for Klout? Think about Google Search.

Fundamentally, the Google Search algorithm is trying to establish a system of trust. The user, the searcher, is supposed to be able to trust that the algorithm will return the most relevant results from the most credible sources. Google only tells the world so much about how it determines that credibility and authority. Why? Because if it gave away the game, people would undercut the algorithm and the system would not be credible.

I would argue that Klout is trying to establish a system of trust just like Google does with its search results. Klout wants to be able to say to brands, “Here are the most influential people on the social Web whose interests align with your message and value proposition. Go forth and build relationships.” And that’s great! The problem is what Klout is saying to its influencers is:

Dear Klout users, please use +K to inflate each other’s influence — you’ll get a better score!

That’s the message. No way around it — when a user can see who has given a +K, I believe it triggers something I like to call obligatory reciprocation. We saw obligatory reciprocation on Facebook — when a Facebook user you didn’t know that well would add you as a “friend,” it seemed unkind to say no, so most of us accepted those weak connections into our networks. What was the result for most of us? Irrelevant noise in our newsfeeds.

But on Klout’s platform, obligatory reciprocation has much broader implications. Instead of simply “friending” people they don’t know, Klout’s users are trading +K like it’s a currency — and I believe this behavior undermines the entire system of trust that Klout should be trying to build and nurture.

What is +K?

For the uninitiated, I’ll elucidate: +K is a topic-specific, virtual high five you can give to another Klout user. You get a set number of +Ks per day to give to other users. When someone gives +K to you, you receive a notification that says something like, “Chris Pirillo gave you +K in Community Management.” The system strongly encourages saying thank you by tweeting or posting on Facebook — but it also encourages the user to “spend” that +K on other users in the network — including the person who gave it to you. And +K directly feeds into your Klout score. See the problem?

Here’s what I believe Klout should be saying to its users: “Do what you do in social media. We’ll take care of measuring it.” If it wants to be transparent about which signals play into the score, great. But for god’s sake, stop encouraging users to undermine the whole system with a sanctioned gamification tactic like +K.

What would Klout look like without +K?

It wouldn’t be perfect, of course. There are plenty of things to work out about what “influence” really means in context of social media. But if +K was nuked, I think Klout would look a whole lot more like Google Search: objective even when influenced by social signals in semantic search. And that’s a good thing. It’s more useful to brands, to the public, and to the entire industry that is social media.

Christina Trapolino has been building and nurturing digital communities for over a decade. As the Social Media Director at Jason’s Deli, she is responsible for the strategic direction of the company’s social media presence. In 2011, Christina became an early adopter on Google+ and grew a large following quickly. Her emergence as a thought leader on the platform earned her several highlights in publications like The Huffington Post and Gizmodo. Today, she continues to evangelize to consumers about ways for them to leverage their networks in order to drive ethical brand behavior.

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