Companies Cash in on Your Online Reputation

Be careful what you tweet.

A recent New York Times article reveals that our online social profiles on various social networking sites (e.g. Twitter and Facebook) are being "scored" to determine our level of influence. “Influence" means how impactful our online presence is in reaching a wide audience and inciting them to action (replies, clicks on sites, and the like). Websites like Klout, a company whose mission is to “help every individual understand and leverage their influence,” base their influence scores on various criteria, including number of followers, retweets and likes.

While Klout and similar websites are helpful in determining the reach of individuals’ social networking, they are not quite the revolutionary democratizers they may appear to be.

Klout’s philosophy centers on the empowerment of the ordinary individual in influencing the actions of others. Part of their mission is to recognize “the impact of the individual.” Yet, it is hard to take this sort of scoring seriously when Justin Bieber is the apotheosis of “influence,” as defined by Klout and similar sites. In the New York Times article, Joe Fernandez, the CEO and co-founder of Klout, says: “For the first time, it’s not just how much money you have or what you look like. It’s what you say and how you say it.” 

But Justin Bieber isn’t quite the ordinary citizen empowered by social media; he’s a celebrity, as are the top 10 women on Klout. It appears as if it does, in fact, matter how much money you have and what you look like.

The way in which these sites measure influence is part of the problem. By focusing on the number of retweets, replies and reciprocated follows, the measurement of influence does not take into account content; instead, quantity is the major factor. Is it more influential for a celebrity to have his song retweeted 20,000 times or for a protester to have his call to action retweeted just 100 times? Which is more important? Which has a greater impact on the way in which our lives are led, policy is enacted and the world is shaped? And what about those policy makers, leaders and advocates who could care less about social media?

Perhaps this isn’t the point.

It seems that the real benefit behind these influence-aggregating websites is not democratization of the individual, as they claim; rather, the real benefit is the facilitation of corporate consumption. The New York Times article notes that “2,500 companies are using Klout’s data.” It is clear the way in which such data might be beneficial to corporations. Providing free items and perks to an “influential” individual is advantageous because his or her comments on these free items will be retweeted throughout the online world. There is no better way of advertising than having Justin Bieber tweet the benefits of one’s product to his 10,000,000-plus Beliebers. Talk about retweeting ad infinitum, or better yet, ad nauseum.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Matthew Clair

Matthew Clair is a PhD student in sociology at Harvard. He regularly contributes to The Diverse Arts Project.

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