Influence, vanity metrics and other internet astrology

Science-free vanity metrics from Kred, LinkedIn, and all the rest are gamifying you and your business -- and you're the loser.
Written by Stilgherrian , Contributor

Both Kred and LinkedIn sent me congratulatory emails recently that were obviously meant to pander to my ego with "vanity metrics", as marketing automation expert Will Scully-Power would call them.

"Congrats! You are in the top 1 percent of Influencers on Kred. Share it with your friends!" wrote Kred.

"Stilgherrian, congratulations! You have one of the top 5 percent most viewed LinkedIn profiles for 2012," wrote LinkedIn. "LinkedIn now has 200 million members. Thanks for playing a unique part in our community!" they added, kinda ruining the effect.

Neither email worked as intended. Instead, they just reminded me that so much of what's done by these and other "social networks" and "influence" measuring sites — Facebook and Google+, Klout and PeerIndex, and all the rest — is designed to con us into handing over even more of our personal information, and that of our friends and colleagues, while offering stuff all in return.

"Sharing", it's called.

Why all the scare quotes? Because all of these words are being warped by the startup industry in subtle but important ways.

Social networks are made of people. Family, friends, colleagues, and lovers, through to the bartenders who remember which beers I drink and the accountant who prepares my tax returns — plus all the ex-folk in those categories that I've accumulated over the years. These networks exist independently of any internet-based company's attempts to map them and cash in on that knowledge.

Influence is the ability to cause people to change their beliefs and behaviour. Kred, and its competitor Klout and others, claim to be able to measure your influence through such things as how many Facebook friends you have, how often your tweets are retweeted, and how often you're mentioned online. The end result is a number that some people seem to take seriously.

"Kred, a social media influence scoring tool, has named Sally Falkow, CEO of Meritus Media, a Top 1% Influencer," wrote Sally Falkow in a media release that turned up in a Google News search just now. "Figuring out who is in a brand's social graph and who has influence in certain communities and subjects has become very important to marketing and PR success."

Really? Says what evidence? What Kred and Klout measure is activity. Buzz. Noise. "The Klout Score incorporates more than 400 signals from seven different networks," the company boasts — which to me seems much like claiming that your astrology is better than the next guy's, because you've added more planets. And, like astrology, there's nothing linking this pseudo-scientific measurement of online bleating and re-bleating to the real-world human behaviour that matters — people buying your product or voting for your political party.

In fact, there's plenty of evidence for the exact opposite, and that trying to target "top influencers" is a waste of time.

"Large-scale changes in public opinion are not driven by highly influential people who influence everyone else, but rather by easily influenced people influencing other easily influenced people," wrote sociologist Duncan Watts and his colleagues in their 2006 paper Influentials, Networks, and Public Opinion Formation (PDF).

"[Twitter] user activity and number of followers do not contribute strongly to trend creation and its propagation. In fact, we find that the resonance of the content with the users of the social network plays a major role in causing trends," wrote researchers at Hewlett-Packard's Social Computing Lab in Trends in Social Media: Persistence and Decay (PDF).

This whole idea that we pay more attention to "influencers" of high social ranking? Outdated thinking. "That's not how social influence works. In reality, it's much messier. It's not one or two interactions involving a recommendation. It's several interactions with a number of people that add up to influence," said Mark Earls, author of Herd: How To Change Mass Behaviour by Harnessing Our True Nature.

All this pseudo-science sounds convincing because it's expressed as numbers, and, as Alfred Crosby pointed out in his book The Measure of Reality: Quantification in Western Europe, 1250-1600, numbers make things real, shape our worldview, and even persuade us to compete. Even if the numbers are meaningless. That's why "gamification" is a thing.

LinkedIn's number was particularly meaningless — top 5 percent isn't a big deal if the spread is narrow — all the more so, because I've done precisely nothing with my LinkedIn profile in more than a year. I stopped playing when LinkedIn committed one privacy outrage too many. So the real message is that "LinkedIn success", by this arbitrary pseudo-metric, anyway, has nothing to do with your activity there. Sounds like a good reason not to give the company more information.

And sharing? Well, both Kred and LinkedIn invited me to "share" these numbers. But that's not sharing. Sharing is a noble thing. As kids, we share our toys so others can play. As adults, we share a pint so we can enjoy each others' company. Tweeting that we have some arbitrary status is what we used to call "boasting", and it's not noble. It's even less noble when the auto-tweet includes an imperative voice instruction to "See what your Kred score is".

Still, Sally Falkow will be "sharing". "We're delighted with this recognition from Kred, and we will display the Top 1% Influencer badge on our website, our blog, and our Twitter feed," she wrote.

But even Falkow has doubts. "Influence scores are important ... but it isn't wise to rely on them as a final influence ranking. We work with a lot of brands who want to reach influential bloggers and tweeters, and it's only once you actually start interacting with people that you discover who really has influence and can move people to action. It's not always the one's [sic] you thought it would be."

Or, to put it more bluntly, it doesn't work.

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