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Is Klout losing its clout?

klout losing cloutKlout has built its reputation on being an application that can actually put your social networking to use. Those countless and seemingly useless hours you spend connecting with people, building your profile, presenting yourself in whatever light you so choose—what is it all good for if not to use as leverage?

The Web app does exactly that, integrating with Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, G+, Instagram, and nearly every other network you can think of to measure just how effective your online presence is. On the surface, it all sounds innocent enough, but now Klout is coming under fire for some of its missteps as well as its mission statement.

Privacy problems

It’s been discovered that Klout has been making profiles for users that don’t yet have accounts—which isn’t all that surprising. If you have an account, you know that when you review people you influence you will sometimes see a notice alerting you they aren’t on Klout and urging you to invite them. What’s outraging users is that Klout is using this mechanism to target children.

Klout responded quickly, and in a blog post CEO Joe Fernandez says plainly “We messed up on this one and we are deeply sorry.” Auto-profiles of non-users will no longer be created for minors or anyone else, says Fernandez.

As Fernandez admits, children weren’t the only ones affected by Klout’s user-scraping tactics. If you’ve ever had a Klout account, getting rid of it was extremely difficult until a recent addition of an opt-out feature. And yes, it did basically read your social graph and create accounts for everyone you know. Scrolling its privacy policy is also discouraging. Remember those “super cookies” Congress was so miffed at Facebook over? Klout is doing something similar:

“When you visit the Site, our servers automatically record information that your browser sends whenever you visit a website (“Log Data”). This Log Data may include information such as your IP address, browser type, or the domain from which you are visiting, the web-pages you visit, the search terms you use, and any advertisements on which you click.”

It gets worse:

“Klout may use both session cookies and persistant cookies to better understand how you interact with the Site and our Service, to monitor aggregate usage by our users and web traffic routing on the Site, and to improve the Site and our service.”

Algorithm update

While there’s no gray area when it comes to creating profiles for minors (which is surely impacted by the fact that Facebook is overrun by children who scam their way into signing up for the site), that isn’t the only thorn in Klout’s side. Unfortunately, the issues only get more subjective. In addition to its auto-profile feature, the site has also landed itself in hot water for a recent algorithm update.

At the end of October 2011, Klout said it was updating its scoring metrics that better helps users understand the changes in the scores. Shifting the focus to quality over quantity, means the value of the interactions you were having and inspiring became more important than just having them.

According to Klout, this meant good things: “A majority of users will see their scores stay the same or go up.” Admittedly, this wasn’t everyone and there was general backlash from power users whose numbers suffered. Klout found itself in a situation Google often does: Yes, we changed our algorithm and no we won’t give you details. And as Google could probably attest to, this doesn’t tend to win you many fans.

Questioning authority

But it’s not only privacy blunders and policy changes that have drawn the ire of the Internet. Klout is also inciting users for essentially doing exactly what it’s been made to do. Accusations of Klout’s evil tendencies also rope in the fact that it’s assessing its users.

angry villagers“Who made Klout the boss?” is basically the reaction from the blogosphere. And the answer is… well, we did. Everyone who’s ever made a Klout account and accessed those statistics helped give Klout a leg to stand on—and then some. The advertisers that use Klout scores to offer influential social networkers promotional trips and products, the users that include their rankings on resumes, and the many Internet addicts who originally signed up for the site (not including those unwittingly roped in) have all been a part of giving Klout authority. [Sidenote: we wonder how many of its 100 million scores belong to self-registered users.]

Take issue with its seedy privacy terms and secret sauce all you want, but you can’t really be mad at Klout for doing what it does. It’s not like the application served some other purpose and we suddenly found out that behind the scenes it was ranking our Web reach. If you think Facebook isn’t using other avenues to catalog this information for advertisers, you’re dead wrong.

And really, how many people use social networks to judge and be judged? More than a few, we’d argue. If we’re being honest with ourselves, part of carefully curating these profiles is to be assessed. Klout jumped all over that trend and turned it into a popular platform based on discrimination. Sure, this borders on creepy and its privacy policies deserve serious examination, but if you’re an avid social networker you should know by now that you are part of the product. 

[Update]

After reading Matthew’s comment (which you can see below), we felt the need to reexamine Klout’s privacy policy. With the exception of its recent admission of making profiles for non-users including minors (which the site has said it will no longer do), we do want to clarify Klout’s use of cookies. While we did not accuse Klout of using super cookies, the language can infer it’s something of the same degree. We talked to Privacy Rights Clearinghouse’s director of communications Amber Yoo about this. 

“Their privacy policy is pretty standard, learning toward better than some,” she says–albeit that is taking into account the site’s new policy to stop making making profiles for people who haven’t signed up for the service. However she notes that one section in particular isn’t very clear: 

“This Log Data may include information such as your IP address, browser type or the domain from which you are visiting, the web-pages you visit, the search terms you use, and any advertisements on which you click.”

“I think they just poorly wrote that section,” she says, noting it could be interpreted that your outside-Klout activity is being tracked, when in reality it’s only what you’re doing on the site that is being monitored (clicking on ads inside Klout, for example). 

Otherwise, Yoo also mentions it would be preferable if Klout would sent email notification when updating its privacy policy. More generally, she says it’s important for parents and children to understand how the site they are using works and what its privacy policies are. 

We tend to err in Klout’s defense (in light of its recent privacy changes). Most people should know what they are getting into with a site like this this late in the social networking game. That said, there are still some interesting arguments about the site’s purposes that deserve investigating.