Klout hearing privacy ‘wake-up call’ says CEO

Imagine you made a list of all your friends and gave them a score out of 100 based on how influential they are. Then you gave most of those friends failing scores of under 50, and a couple weeks later you revised your scores to be even lower. You might not be surprised if some of them got upset about it.

That’s similar to the situation that San Francisco-based Klout Inc. finds itself in. The firm is attempting to create a metric for social influence by giving social media users a score out of 100 based on how much impact they have on the connections maintained on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, etc.

Klout rattled some chains recently by collecting available information about Facebook users that hadn’t signed up for its service – including minors. It also revised its score formula and lowered the ranking of some of its top users a couple of weeks ago. So CEO and co-founder Joe Fernandez understands why some users are irked by Klout.

ITBusiness.ca caught up with Fernandez to chat about the recent Klout controversies at Toronto’s Mesh Marketing conference. Here’s what he had to say.

ITB: Why was Klout creating profiles for people that didn’t sign up?

Fernandez: Klout analyzes public data. Mostly Twitter, but some Facebook too. When people link their Facebook accounts, we’d show them people who’d commented on their page and interacted with them. So we were showing people who had interacted with them, but hadn’t registered for Klout.

It confused a lot of people and it wasn’t done well.

What did you learn from this?

Just in general, data and privacy on the social Web is a complex issue. We actually have a really close relationship with Facebook and we completely abided by all of their privacy rules. The biggest thing we screwed up was just surprising all of our users. We thought it was a cool feature, like hey these are your friends, and we weren’t totally clear about it.

I find a lot of services online that scour social networks for public information and try to put together profiles to get ranked on Google. Clearly Klout is not one of those services. You have some credibility.

We’re all about how do we help you, as an influencer, understand your impact and maximize it. We do everything very publicly, so it’s a little painful to get beat up on this issue.

Your service is integrating many social networks. Is there a tension between respecting privacy of people on the Internet and providing value to your users?

I don’t think we’re alone in that. I think that’s with Google, Facebook, everyone on the social Web struggles with that. We get data from 13 different networks, each with different privacy settings. You get low fidelity in the data you actually get. The whole problem was with Facebook, there were connections to minors. We can’t actually know that, we just get a name and a picture and that’s all we know.

But are you responsible to know that?

Not per the Facebook policy. But I get why people get upset. So it’s just in general a tough thing to try and navigate. We have to be way more careful. We put a lot of effort into being careful, but this is a wake up call.

Is Klout doing more to address these concerns or have you done what you had to do?

We made the changes within two hours of realizing what was happening. There was a three day stretch as we dug in and worked with the community, talking to Facebook, and we made changes about what data we looked at and how we offered an opt out. It’s hard when you’re trying to invent something new, and trying to create a service for all our users. When you stumble like that, the big thing is to be open and honest. We’re going to pay a lot of attention to this and continue to pay close attention to our community.

There’s so much other stuff going on with Klout. You’ve built a gamification strategy with these social media scores. How much should I care about my score?

There’s a border line there. Obviously we want people to care about their Klout score. But what we find is when people become obsessed with their scores and behave insincerely online to optimize their score, it kind of defeats the whole purpose. I think of SEO on Google where companies spend all this money trying to manipulate Page Rank and then Google has to go and change its algorithm to try and rebalance. But if you just always focus on creating good content, you will always be highly ranked.

So it’s nice to know your score and keep it as a benchmark, but when people go too far, it loses the impact of what people do social media for.

It seems to me it will be tempting to people to manipulate Klout scores with spammy accounts or affiliate-style programs. How do you prevent that?

That kind of battle is just the nature of our business. We’ll do our job and make Klout a valuable metric, and people will try and manipulate that. We just have to stay one step ahead. With Google, it’s easy to create a thousand Web pages and link them all together. But it’s a lot more work to create fake connections between people.

What about creating a bunch of spam accounts to press that +K button?

The thing with +K is that it depends on how much influence the person has, and how much +K and all these other things.

So the algorithm is very important for you. Google changes its algorithm every day. How often are you iterating?

We change it weekly right now, most of them are small and people don’t really notice. Then sometimes, we do the change we did a couple of weeks ago and the Internet is on fire.

So what did you learn from that?

I learned that people are a lot more passionate about their Klout scores than we anticipated, which is a good thing. The people who’s scores dropped tended to be on the top end and the most vocal. We could have done a better job of explaining why their scores changed. We tried to just rip the band-aid off and I think it would have been better to put a lot more effort in putting the new scores in context.

What’s next for Klout?

Between now and the end of the year, the reason we changed the scoring algorithm was to enable us to be more transparent. We’ve started that, but it’s pretty weak so far on the site. The things we have to roll out in the next few weeks is to help people understand why their score is what it is.

You know, to show your score is a 20 and your friend is a 30, and here’s the things they do that you don’t. Not just – do these things, raise your score.

Brian JacksonBrian Jackson is the Associate Editor at ITBusiness.ca. Follow him on Twitter, read his blog, and check out the IT Business Facebook Page.

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