Numbers is hardly real and they never have feelings but you push too hard, even numbers got limits. –Mos Def, Mathematics
Have you seen the Sprint commercial with the data consumption ticker tick, ticking away while the attractive-yet-hip girl goes about her day, week, month? The meter runs while she’s drinking her morning coffee (with phone in hand), while she’s in line for a movie (and downloading an app), when she’s idling her time at the park (looking at her phone). The commercial ends with the promise that Sprint’s new Unlimited Data Plan can handle all of your data consumption needs, so no worries—download and browse as much as you want. The girl in the commercial then smiles reassuredly and (finally) looks up from her phone. Everything will be all right.
I like citing commercials because I think they express more about us, the consumers of these products, than we’d ever like to admit. Advertising, as a rule and practice, often times knows more about us then we’ll ever know about ourselves. So this whole concept of everyone’s own personal data counter is interesting and I think shows that a migration is near completion. Much like in our (real) material world where you are what you own/wear/have a membership to/etc., we may now be fully aware that we are our data online. Our data is us in cyberspace. And that’s valuable. As this commercial from Norton, the computer security software firm, echoes so bluntly in telling us it can protect our Stuff, or data: “The Stuff [data] that puts you on the grid as a contributing member of society. It’s who you are Stuff, where you’ve been and where you’re going Stuff… Because what are you without your Stuff? Better yet, without your Stuff... who are you?”
This concept of data-as-value is almost well-worn at this point: Facebook and Google’s clamoring for user data to further enrich their algorithms, Groupon’s valuation based on a thrifty user base that can be targeted for advertising, etc. Still, the Internet and our interactions with it are largely chaotic, messy, and varied. Or so it seems. As I’ve pointed out before, this messiness is becoming somewhat controlled, encouraging us to get as chaotic as we want as long as we never leave the garden (aka—sign out of Facebook). This is because our data is valuable and these companies want it so badly they’ll give us free services for it.
Knowing that the data we generate creates value for somebody somewhere, a new niche of measuring such things have sprung up. Like Klout.com. This is a service that analyzes your social media interaction and “measures influence based on your ability to drive action.” Nicely boiled down to one single score that fluctuates due to your social media activity that day, and what activity came about because of your activity, it reflects your online influence. If you have a Facebook or Twitter account, Klout knows about you and has measured you. The site has garnered some (well due) criticism as of late, mostly centered around what this metric of online influence is really doing: measuring actual online interaction or actively shaping it by adding (a random, created) value to it? Because what it claims to be doing (measuring influence and engagement fairly) is nearly impossible. It would be like measuring how much you like one song versus another based solely on number of times they’re played. Oftentimes frequency doesn’t determine quality.
To measure social interaction is to reduce it. This is placing human affairs into the corporate, business logic box. In reality—and online—influence, engagement, meaningful interaction are messy, unfocused and mostly determined by quality, not quantity. I may interact with someone via Twitter everyday but our back-and-forth is mostly links (which have a quality to be sure) but then there’s the in-depth conversations I have online with, maybe, a fellow Mantle blogger every three months or so. The richness lies in the variety, the diversity of influencing and being influenced. The reductionist nature of Klout, while useful, is destined to fail mainly because there is no way it will ever accurately measure this social messiness.
“No administrative system is capable of representing any existing social community except through a heroic and greatly schematized process of abstraction and simplification”—that’s author and Yale scholar James Scott taking about State creation in his book Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. Klout has adopted this “heroic” process of abstraction and turned it into a game of sorts. If value today online means—generally—how large of an online audience comes attached with “you,” then Klout can show you your worth, but on Klout’s terms. We have to remember, as is Scott’s point in Seeing Like a State, that these abstractions are restricted by a small number of objectives that are usually more beneficial to the “administrators” (Facebook, Google, Twitter, Klout, etc.) then to the “administrated” (us, the users).
And now we’re back to value and the data we generate. Much like abstractions encouraged throughout human history, they are here to separate value from the “thing.” A tree is seen as lumber, certain animals of worth are game or livestock while others are vermin and pests, an individual is seen as a source of labor instead of a human being—all of these abstractions make it easy to separate value from the whole, and justify, on some level, exploitation. Klout is giving us a reason, while shaping intent (to get our score up), to generate more value—but for whom? Social media, once the scourge of the Internet, is now big business, the future of the web, and becoming a determining factor in the lives of millions of people. So when there are efforts to administer it, gridify it, it’s time we start judging the metrics, and not be judged by them.
Consumerism, Corporate Responsibility, internet