The Quantification of Individual Social Equity

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“Through self-doubt, we lose our sense of self-worth.”
Image by Alex Qin

As the echo chamber buzz about Empire Avenue rises, perhaps we should ask questions about what these “influence” tools actually accomplish. From Klout to Empire Avenue, we are literally assigning numbers and now stock values to people’s social network activity, creating a specific metric of influence. Beyond the increasing ethical issues that these games and tools offer, there are many questions they bring to mind. Are the metrics actually useful? Can you quantify what should be qualified? Are we leading ourselves astray? What are the repercussions on individuals’ well-being?

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Time and again, it has been proven that social network popularity — follower counts, retweets, etc. — does not necessarily equate to actual influence. In actuality, influence really depends on the strength of community relationships that an individual maintains — strong ties as opposed to weak ties — in online networks. As studies show this influence can be spontaneous on social networks.

One of the best historical examples of real influence was DonorsChoose’s 2008 Blogger Challenge. The blogger challenge pitted some of the world’s most well known bloggers — Tech Crunch, Ars Technica, EnGadget –against each other in an effort to fundraise for students. But despite the big names, the winners were respectable but smaller bloggers like Sarah Bunting’s Tomato Nation blog and Fred Wilson’s AVC blog. All of these blogs arguable could have used their blogs and full Twitter and Facebook networks to their advantage, but the smaller ones with strong community ties won out.

More recent examples of this include the celebrities themselves (forget the digerati in the social media space). Popular celebrities love Twitter, and Twitchange auctions their Twitter accounts as a means to raise money. But of all the big stars that get on Twitchange, its stars like Zachary Levi (who?) and Jeremy Cowart that end up garnering higher bids. A more impassioned, engaged fan base — stronger ties — equals more yield in comparison to the Eva Longoria, LeeAnn Rimes and Tim Robbins of the world.

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So right out of gate these online influence metrics (and note that they cannot include real world clout) are bound to fail because they cannot quantify what can only be qualified — passion. Strength of community comes from relational engagement and the bonds people feel with individuals within their networks. Popularity — most liked — does not necessarily equate to passion. That doesn’t mean that popular people can’t cultivate impassioned networks, but the two are not the same. Popularity is attention, strength of community is the passion that creates action.

Klout, Twitalyzer, Empire Avenue, all of these metrics are no more than PR 2.0 metrics. They are at best metrics to see who can get the most attention regularly across single or diverse social networks. To build entire social media marketing programs off of them would be a recipe for failure, as attention alone usually does not yield outcomes such as ROI.

The Ethics of Quantification

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This is not to preach, but looking at Empire Avenue caused feelings of discomfort, and after reflection, it became clear why. It seems wrong to affix a price on people’s heads based on their social network interactions. The pricing of people’s worth has a long hard history in human history; markets of people have often had the word slavery affixed to them. Another nasty historical use of affixing market price to people is prostitution. Both of these historical and still present dark human behaviors make Empire Avenue uncomfortable.

Yes, it’s just a game, a stock market, but not everyone has voluntarily opted in. Yet, transactions have occurred. And look how serious the social media marketing industry is already treating it. It just has many implications that lack mindfulness. So for this blogger, there will be no investing in other voices (much less time) on Empire Avenue. Just like personal brands and corporate brands, the concept does not translate well.

Assigning a number regardless of the specific social network measurement still has implications that can hurt people. Consider that Klout is now being indexed by Google, and is coming up on the first page of some searches. Will important decisions like hiring be based on Klout scores? Isn’t this the same as not hiring someone because of a mediocre credit score?

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Further, the ties between social media communicators and their activities as participants on these networks raises additional questions about ethics. Whether it is Klout Perks or simple pitches to boost stock value, can these individuals be considered objective in their praise?

Conclusion

As Trey Pennington, people are more important than Klout. And collective communities of people are more important than the individual. Social networking is about those communities. When we get away from the concept of community, and over-focus on individuals, an imbalance occurs.

Community managers and social media marketers should be careful, and leery of quantifiable influence metrics. They can provide a starting point for influencer relations programs, but they can not reveal what important qualitative community submersion brings. Further, they are not a holistic representation of social media, and how to market within them from a strategic perspective.

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  • http://dannybrown.me Danny Brown

    I guess those that need faux numbers to justify what they’re doing (or meant to be doing) will always lap up the likes of Klout, PeerIndex, EA and others. Me? I see them as a bit of fun, nothing else (much like TwitterGrader, etc).

    Completely agree that no automation on the planet can define a human’s behaviour and influence based on fluid metrics. What if I’m hammered one night and tweet something completely out of character?

    Or I forever kiss ass on someone I hate, just to have them support me for my needs when I have something I need influential help with?

    Gamification (stupid word) is exactly that – gaming the system. Ironically enough, the winners aren’t those who feel they should be; but the ones clever enough to play to pandered egos and then reel in the profits of milking that human.

    And on we go…

    • Anonymous

      It’s a lot like high school. The popular will always chase the fads, the latest ridiculousness. But the dorks, people like me (and maybe you, though I wouldn’t call you a dork), do what we do, and we focus, and enjoy what we love. Twenty years later the dorks win. The popular folks, not so much.

      • http://dannybrown.me Danny Brown

        Oh, I’m a dork mate – it’s why I’m up at midnight looking for any cool new WordPress plug-ins that might make my blog a little sexy on the back-end.

        Thank God I went to school in the UK – never had to worry about the Jocks and the prom queen popularity. I just wanted to read comics. ;-)

        • http://twitter.com/PlacesFirst Tobey Deys

          Well, if it’s about metrics and a numbers game, then my perks may not even rate a ride at the back of the Partridge Family bus ;-)
          I may be Pollyanna wearing a stylish pair of rose-coloured glasses but I have to concur that it’s about the humanity that can be driven by social media. Everyone has something to offer someone – and it’s the quality of that offering that means something. Building a strong, connected, reciprocal community is what I’m looking for… I figure that if I help push people up the hill, eventually they’ll reach down and give me a hand up.
          (and I hated high school. I was, and remain, happily dorky ;-)
          Thanks, Geoff – you’ve saved this soul from YA(shiny)SN. Sick post!

          • http://dannybrown.me Danny Brown

            Exactly, Tobey. Community will always be around, while the Twitters become the Friendsters become the Friends Reunited become the Geocities. ;-)

    • http://www.wix.com/rainesmaker/creative Glenn Raines

      Thanks for stopping short of teats. (Opps, I said it!). But alas, herd mentality factors in as well ; )

      • http://dannybrown.me Danny Brown

        Damn – knew I missed a key word out. Gah!!!

  • Anonymous

    All inlfuence is relative to your specific marketplace and universe of stakeholders. Things like Klout are really really dangerous because like other single number “measures of success” they have no proven relationship to customer behavior.

    • Anonymous

      Bingo! There is no subjectivity and relevance with Klout. Thanks for the comment, KD.

  • http://thoughtwrestling.com/blog Mark Dykeman

    To see these websites as anything much more than entertainment and a chance for a little bit of socializing (i.e. mixing and meeting new people) is dangerous, just like a desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world (as per John Lecarre).

  • http://www.howardgreenstein.com/blog Howard Greenstein

    To your comment about not hiring people for a mediocre credit score, some businesses (like those in the financial or government/security world) do pay attention to those metrics, because people who are desperate for money can act in their own interests and not in the interests of a company – ie they can leak secrets, etc. Not a good analogy – there is some validity there.
    I think on the subject of measuring people – this is all a proxy, like ratings are a proxy for TV viewing and polls are a proxy for people’s opinions – they can be directional but certainly they’re not “the truth.”
    They may be helpful to find those who can get a message out, but getting a message out doesn’t equate to influence.

    • Anonymous

      Yeah, I hear you Howard, but I have to disagree with you. If we hire someone on credit score does that mean every person has no character because they aren’t well off? I live in DC and I can tell you the talent in the government isn’t great. And the financial sector isn’t a rosy bastion of excellence or scruples either based on our economy. So back to you on the analogy. Show me how this practice has created a better workforce. I’m not seeing it.

      • http://www.howardgreenstein.com/blog Howard Greenstein

        I said some companies and agencies *don’t* hire. And, I won’t say it makes the workforce better. It can help keep from making it a worse workforce.

        It is one part of a picture of a person, just like the influence score is one element of a proxy, not a full view of a person/org/business.

  • http://BestSellerAuthors.com Warren Whitlock

    Business (and life) is a series of games. Kudos to Klout for defining a game and playing it well.

    Choosing to hire, or make a decision solely on a Klout score would be a dumb as picking someone that pledged the right fraternity or for the dress they wore the day of the interview.

    • Anonymous

      Yet, people are doing it… So, conversations must be had, yes? Hope all is going well, Warren!

  • http://twitter.com/PRSoapbox Colleen Campbell

    I am often amazed at how often in a rush to quantify (and arguably justify) specific influencer engagement, we often overlook the human intelligence factor or as you adequately put it – the strength of community involvement. Certainly in the intelligence communities those who may carry the most influence may be the least publicly known and may not have a social presence. Yet, their perspective and insight into situations is valued by their counterparts and drives decisions. Becoming obsessed with public score counts may limit the possibilities of engagement with only a select few as opposed to those who may privately wield heavy influence within their respective industries with a limited or nonexistent social media presence. Great post Geoff!

    • Anonymous

      Thanks, Colleen. I also find it ironic that we have so much dialog about online influence when in reality, the most influential people tend not to be online at all! Go figure. Thanks for the analogy on the influence community.

  • http://www.wix.com/rainesmaker/creative Glenn Raines

    Real influence mapping and key opinion leader identification requires heavy mixing of both qualitative and quantitative Jambalaya: Unique, multiple and objective peer nomination questionnaires to identify influencers based on key drivers that influence very specific behavior, then segmentation and finally profiling peer-nominated influencers so client sponsors know how, why and what tactics to engage specific influencers. Everything else, Klout, Empire state of mind, whatever. is just mumbo jumbo.

    • Anonymous

      That’s quite a recipe! I love the metaphor. Thank you for the insights, Glenn!

      • http://www.wix.com/rainesmaker/creative Glenn Raines

        Sure thing Geoff! I haven’t seen anyone use Cajun metaphors so what the heck. Along that theme, we might as well call the latest shiny object “gumbo.”

        • http://GovTwit.com dslunceford

          I’ve been using the term “Anectdata” (cribbed from someone else, but can’t remember who to attribute to). Mixing raw numbers with the anecdotes and stories that illustrate value. Might have to use Jambalaya going forward….

  • http://markharai.com Mark Harai

    This post and comments are packed with some great insights.

    I like what Trey said here: “When we get away from the concept of community, and over-focus on individuals, an imbalance occurs.”

    When you’re really engaged and getting things done in a thriving community environment, those games/ numbers/ etc. become irrelevant. Most folks who are getting real things done don’t pay attention to them.

    Cheers Geoff : )

    • Anonymous

      Yes, I agree. The numbers are irrelevant except the ones that matter most, private profit and loss, lives touched and changed, these kinds of things…

  • http://twitter.com/sgetgood Susan Getgood

    First the important bit. Zachary Levi is the star of NBC’s Chuck, and actively engages with his fans on social networks. Hence the results you mention above.

    Empire Avenue bugs me for reasons similar to yours, but I do find Klout useful as it at least attempts to understand engaged followers, versus just counting fans. Not perfect by any means, but a useful piece of the puzzle if you are evaluating a segment that is Twitter-active.

    As a starting point, not the definitive measure.

    • http://www.evolve-pr.com Tom Ohle

      Empire Avenue puts a significant focus on others engaging with your content. You can have 200 followers and have a higher share price than someone with 300k. Thought I’d clarify that bit :)

      • http://twitter.com/sgetgood Susan Getgood

        It’s the buying shares bit that irritates me, not the calculation per se. Yet another popularity contest.

        • http://www.evolve-pr.com Tom Ohle

          Again, popularity is part of it, sure, but you won’t succeed by being popular :). You have to engage others, have others engage with you. Anyway, point taken :). If, instead of saying, “Buy shares in others,” we said, “Invest in people and brands you respect and trust,” would you have a different opinion?

          • http://twitter.com/sgetgood Susan Getgood

            It’s been grand hijacking Geoff’s comments with you :-) but mayhaps folks would prefer we take our little convo elsewhere.

            I’d love to learn more about Empire Avenue, but I warn you, with most of the list sort of stuff, I am firmly in the Groucho Marx camp — “I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member”

    • Anonymous

      Ah yes, with its wonderful 70th something rating. It barely makes the annual cut every year. It’s the first time I had heard of Levi. We do use Klout, too, from time to time, but in a very loose way, simply as a barometer of engagement, not to actually determine influence. By Klout’s standards some of the influencers we handpick are thought to be turkeys!

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  • Dominiq

    Great article. People & communities are what matters and influence cannot be captured by a single number.

    Someone is influential IN a specific community FOR a specific topic/purpose.

    On your hiring example: I would not work for a company that assess people based on their Klout score. This is a strong indication on how they may treat employees.

    I also leaned that a major hotel is giving discount based on Klout score … and frankly I wonder whether this could backfire. If I am a loyal customer of this hotel and I don’t get the discount because my level of activity on twitter is too low I may move to a competitor.

    Best

    • Anonymous

      Dominiq: I’d bet if you asked, the hotel would hook you up… Otherwise, yes, I’d move. Influence is so subjective, it’s hard to say who can/will rise to the top in any given situation. Some folks are better bets than others, but you can never really tell…

  • http://www.evolve-pr.com Tom Ohle

    First up, thanks for the post, Geoff :). We know we can’t create a product that everyone will love… nothing is or ever will be loved by everyone… we’re trying, of course.

    One very important thing to note about Empire Avenue is that we’re not measuring influence. We said we were doing that when we launched last year, but then quickly realized that it was total BS and that what we were actually measuring was/is network value, no more, no less. The Empire Avenue Share Price takes all the data other “influence” measurement services have (same data we all have access to via Twitter/FB/etc. api) and add the subjective market layer. Sure, some may “invest” purely on a game level, but in the long term market forces dominate. There’s some element of trust/reputation built into a buy — I invest in people I trust, respect and from whom I want to hear more. Without that element, yeah, it would just be a big popularity contest. However, success on Empire Avenue — if that’s defined as “having a high share price,” which isn’t actually going to be “success” for everyone on the site — is reliant largely on your ability and desire to engage with people across social media.

    A lot of people are coming in and claiming that we’re trying to tackle influence measurement, and I just want to clarify that we’re not. Simply stated, Empire Avenue is a social game and network where you invest virtual cash into friends, family, and whoever else you appreciate, in order to meet new people, get insights into your SM activity and have some fun.

    That’s pretty much it. It’s up to the individual to decide how they want to use it.Try using Search to find someone interested in a specific thing — the Share Price will show you (relatively speaking) whether they engage with their audience or not, regardless of how big that audience is. There are a lot of different ways to enjoy the site, and if, in the end, none of those appeal to you, that’s entirely okay. “Can’t please ‘em all,” and all that jazz. It’s sometimes tough for those of us who spend all day using social media to see uses for the average person… however, we’ve gotten a lot of comments from users who say the site has motivated them to blog more often, or has given them a reason to use Twitter (and through the site given them an audience, which is tough to attract on Twitter alone), or has made them more aware of the benefits of subscribing to someone on YouTube, etc.

    Anyway, hope you keep an eye on it, and if you ever have any questions at all, or improvements, let us know. There are only five of us working on the site (only three on the dev side) so each day brings new features, improvements, updates and new opinions about how we’re not fitting the needs of everyone :)

    Cheers,
    T

    • Anonymous

      Great comment, Tom. Thank you. I haven’t deleted my account, but I do have some morale issues with participation, mostly because I work in the cause sector as a primary vertical, and the game itself presents issues as noted above, but in the same way that Black Ops would. I wouldn’t deny the game to be fun or enjoyable by some folks.

      On a larger note, THANK YOU for clarifying the influence metric non-starter position. As you already know, several social media marketing minds have dubbed Empire as the next influence metric, and for all intents and purposes it should not be. This article is a response to those positions, not your game.

      This is a huge issue, and a dangerous one for several reasons; starting with its not a good way to build a program! I hope you will remain vigilant in your commenting and correcting of such perceptions.

      • http://www.evolve-pr.com Tom Ohle

        Remember, it’s all about how you use the platform. We want to encourage the use of the platform for good — maybe purchasing an in-game “Luxury item” results in a donation to a charity. Or, as someone promoting a cause, you get people to “invest” in that idea — you can then directly message them through the site’s systems, or use it to reach out to others interested in that cause… We hope to encourage further use of the platform for things other than “OMG BUY MY SHARES” :)… we still have a ton of work to do on the site before we’re happy with it.

      • http://scottmonty.com scottmonty

        That’s a great clarifying point from Tom. But I have to wonder, Geoff: what’s so inherently evil about ascribing some metric to individuals. Insurance companies do it. We do it with the entities we buy media for. It’s how the political system works. If we’re trying to judge the value someone is putting into a system, doesn’t that necessarily equate to some sort of metric? Or does your rejection of it have more to do with the automated nature of some of the influence measurement systems?

        • Anonymous

          Using insurance companies and politicians as bastions of best practice really isn’t a very convincing argument. Let me put it to you this way. Do you think it’s OK to buy and sell your friends? Is this something you would tell your children? I mean it is as basic as that, Scott. How about prostitution, how much is someone’s body worth? Or slavery? Where does it stop?

          Games are fun, but they have an underlying message. It’s a free world, you can do as you wish, and so can I. I choose to say no.

          • http://scottmonty.com scottmonty

            I only used insurance and politics as an example of the way humans necessarily need to make decisions based on comparative metrics. If I were actually buying and selling my friends, then I’d agree with your point. But as you say, this is a game. It’s helpful to be able to draw the line between fantasy and reality. I’m sure you’ve played Monopoly, Risk or War at some point in your life. By doing so, you’re not condoning bad business practices, military invasion or murder. They’re games.

            We all knew you had written off Empire Avenue before you started using it; but as a side matter, what metrics do you use to determine influence?

          • Anonymous

            Mmm, but I don’t play them anymore because they are violent. Monopoly is about businesses and real estate, not personal brands so I have less of an issue with that.

            We use some of the automated metrics like Klout and Postrank as barometers, but mostly we examine each community in depth manually to determine who the lead voices and influencers are. We have our own approach to determining who to reach out to, and the clients seem to like it.

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