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Measuring an Artist’s Klout

My photoshopped Klout Score.
The Klout score I wish I had.

While thinking about how the internet is changing how we find and promote art, it’s important to highlight a new tool that might help us understand our online presence: Klout. What is an artist’s reach? How many people can be expected to show up for a young artist’s solo show? Which critics really matter?  These are questions that have only become more common, and although many of us feel queasy about the goings-on of the art market, and possibly more so about quantifying influence, it’s a reality we can’t ignore.

Klout, which launched in 2009, tries to take the hearsay out of online social capital. I am a newcomer to Klout, having joined a couple of weeks ago. My Klout score is currently 56, I have a reach of 3,000 people, an amplification of 49 and a network of 42. But what do these scores mean, and how does Klout determine them?

Klout syncs with your social media networks like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr and others and monitors your activity. It looks for how many likes, reblogs, comments, friends, etc. you have, basically examining any quantifiable data to understand your online clout. There are many variables to the Klout system that I don’t understand, but if, for example, you tweet a ton and follow many people, yet nobody follows you and your followers never respond or retweet, your Klout score will be low. The scoring system leverages engagement over numbers of followers and posts.

Ai Weiwei's Klout score, without his active participation with Klout.
Ai Weiwei’s Klout score, without his active participation on the site

In an attempt to better understand Klout, I looked at other artists and bloggers to see where my score of 56 stands. Ai Weiwei comes in at 73, which seems logical. But Aaron Koblin, who has given a TED talk, showed work and lectured in museums and galleries around the world, been featured on every art and tech blog ever and works for Google’s Creative Lab, has the same score as mine. There is no way that Koblin and I are equally powerful online; it’s simply not true.

Whether or not you agree with what Klout is doing, it’s important to remember that it only claims to measure your influence on social media. While looking at artists on Klout for this article, I had trouble finding any that were not mostly internet-based. You shouldn’t conflate a low Klout score with poor physical world influence.

The Amish and Klout.
The Amish and Klout (image by the author for Hyperallergic)

When an Amish family needs a new barn, they tell their network, largely via word of mouth, and in one day the entire community raises the barn. What is their Klout score? Zero. Could I, with a reach of 3,000, ever expect to have my house built for me in a day from that network for free? No. Similarly, Justin Bieber’s perfect score of 100 does not mean he has more social capital than President Obama, who has a score of 94. Bieber may have a bigger online presence, but Obama can declare war, change health care for every citizen of the United States, bomb Libya and more. Clearly this warrants greater cultural capital.

Artists who make work solely or predominantly online often lack the real-world affirmation that traditional artists do. In this respect Klout might offer a new means for net artists to quantify their success and legitimize themselves in an art world focused on solo shows and the like. Brad Troemel, while considering the scant market options for digital artists in an article for the Creators Project blog, wrote, “Klout is of value to this conversation because it provides a model for how online brands [artists] can perhaps be valued in the literal terms physical exhibition opportunities provide.” However, even purely for the digital artist, Klout has holes.

There are important social networks that are not currently synced with Klout, such as GitHub or Disqus. Although Klout is working to broaden its range, this point is important, especially when some people believe GitHub to be the most important social network.

Klout scores are given without the subject being aware of or engaging with Klout. For instance, if you have a public Twitter account, you have a Klout score, but that doesn’t mean the score is also synced with your Tumblr or Facebook page. Surely if I had not synced Klout with all of my social media networks, I would have a lower score. So for a user who couldn’t care less about Klout, his score might be misleadingly low.

Despite the inconsistencies and gaps, Klout is already affecting real people. Some jobs seeking new employees ask for applicant’s Klout scores, and even businesses in the customer service industry sometimes offer better treatment to customers with a higher Klout score, knowing that a positive Tweet from them is equal to buying advertising. Seth Stevenson, in a piece titled “What Your Klout Score Really Means” for Wired, elaborates:

But even if you have no idea what your Klout score is, there’s a chance that it’s already affecting your life. At the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas last summer, clerks surreptitiously looked up guests’ Klout scores as they checked in. Some high scorers received instant room upgrades, sometimes without even being told why. According to Greg Cannon, the Palms’ former director of ecommerce, the initiative stirred up tremendous online buzz. He says that before its Klout experiment, the Palms had only the 17th-largest social-networking following among Las Vegas-based hotel-casinos. Afterward, it jumped up to third on Facebook and has one of the highest Klout scores among its peers.

In the same article, Jaron Lanier, author of You Are Not A Gadget, was quoted as saying, “People’s lives are being run by stupid algorithms more and more … The only ones who escape it are the ones who avoid playing the game at all.” Lanier is right: lives are being run by algorithms — whether in the stock market or on Klout. But I would argue with Lanier that people should either jump on board and figure out how to navigate this new terrain or be left behind.

How should you engage with Klout? First, if you don’t like the idea of Klout and you have a public Twitter account, I’d recommend deleting your Klout score. Second, there are some easy steps for how to increase your score detailed here. Many of the suggestions are straightforward: ask influential people questions on social media; tweet often but don’t flood your network; positive messages generally do better than negative ones. Basically, if you want to be influential, engage your audience, especially the influential people: just as we try to position ourselves within institutions and alongside people we want to work with, so, too, can we retweet and comment on our internet-immersed idols.

I hope to see Klout fine-tune its program to yield more accurate results. Even so, I think it’s inherently dangerous to rely too much on these systems. The best Klout can offer, for now, is a rough estimate. A score of 10 compared to 86 has an undeniable significance, but what conclusions can be drawn from a difference of a couple of points? I wouldn’t make any. Nor could I justify any changes in my actions based on a slight Klout score difference. I like the blogs I like because they speak to me, not because they are speaking to a lot of people. I appreciate articles and artists when they are thoughtful and provide a new and interesting perspective. And yet, as I scanned Klout, many of my favorite online people and personalities had much higher scores than others. I can’t deny Klout’s relevancy.

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