The Problems With Social Profiling

Will playing favorites be fair or even legal?

by Jason Falls |

Jeremiah Owyang offered an insightful piece on how social profiling will work in the real world last week. We’re all aware that influence tools like Klout are being used to reward people with deals, perks and discounts based on their measure of online influence. Owyang rightfully predicts that what we’re seeing now is the tip of the iceberg, like it or not.

But for all its potential, social profiling scares me. It harkens back a day when people were treated differently because of their race or gender. The various Civil Rights Acts in the United States were essentially an effort to force people to not consider how someone looks when deciding whether or not they could be treated like everyone else. Yet with the social profiling future Owyang portrays — facial recognition on iPhones allowing us to see someone’s Klout score just by aiming our phone at them — I think we’re in for a universe of hurt.

Image representing Klout as depicted in CrunchBase
Image via CrunchBase

There are several reasons I worry about social profiling. The tale of Sam Fiorella being overlooked for a job because of a perceived low Klout score which appeared in Wired last week (and is also an early case study in Mark Schaefer’s book Return on Influence) is just one example. Sam Fiorella is brilliant, experienced and few people in the digital space can hold a candle to his qualifications to help brands kick ass. Yet some bozo somewhere eliminated him from contention for a digital strategist position because of his Klout score?

Whomever that person or agency is, be glad Sam is a professional and wouldn’t think of disclosing who you are. You might be laughed out of the industry for that one.

My problems with their improper use of Klout?

  • Klout is just one way of looking at the data of influence
  • Klout is limited to reach and resonance on social networks online, and further limited to only a handful of them.
  • Klout doesn’t measure offline influence, email influence, word-of-mouth influence, publishing influence (blogs, news sites, newspapers, magazines, broadcasting), job titles, name recognition, whether you’re connected to the mafia and so on.
  • Klout, to date, is very, very, very, very, very, very (is that enough veries?) immature. It doesn’t link what a person does offline or away from social profiles to their impact. For example, as of April 29, Walt Mossberg, arguably one of the most influential people in tech, has a Klout score of 68. Mine is 69. That’s bullshit. Better example: P.J. O’Rourke, perhaps one of the most influential political commentators of our day? Klout score of zero. But there’s an “I want to be P.J. O’Rourke” account on Twitter. It has a Klout score of 20.
  • Then there’s my argument that not everyone is online with the intent and purpose of growing fans/friends/followers. Most people are online to stalk their ex’s and see pictures of their grandkids. Klout doesn’t mean anything to them and never will. I content that is true of most (greater than 75 percent) all all people online anywhere. Some research points in that direction, but no one has really asked those direct questions yet.

So the future Owyang tells of is one based on metrics that are incomplete and, on the whole, less than compelling.

Regardless of the accuracy and significance of the data used to measure influence, the whole notion of profiling is morally reprehensible to me. Perhaps idyllic and utopian in my opinion, and certainly based on the fact I grew up in a struggling, middle class family in a small town where what clothes you wore and where you lived was more important than whether or not you could speak coherently, I believe human beings to all be of equal value to the world. Ashton Kutcher doesn’t deserve to be treated better at a restaurant than Ashton Johnson, a resident director at Lyon College in Jonesboro, Arkansas. (Whom I picked randomly from a search of people named Ashton on LinkedIn.)

Yes, the reality of our world is that the restaurant in question thinks that treating Ashton Kutcher well might mean he’ll recommend them to millions of people on Twitter or that he’ll let them take his picture to hang on their wall of fame. Yes, marketers are going to do the same with online influencers because they’re dying to find some measurable outcome from social media. Maybe that 25,000-followers Twitter guy will drop a “loved shopping there” Tweet that will mean a few more “Likes” on Facebook!

But this doesn’t make it right. And one day, we may find, it won’t make it Constitutional.

What social profiling does is allows us to play favorites. Every time that’s been done in this country it has created one, or both, of two things:

  • Animosity between groups of people, typically the haves and the have-nots
  • Laws to abridge a person or organization’s ability to do so

Yes, there’s a difference between racism, sexism, religious prejudice and letting someone with more Twitter followers get First Class seat upgrades before everyone else. Or is there? We have loyalty clubs and rewards programs. They play favorites. But those programs are opt-in and fueled by purchase. I can buy enough airline tickets or miles to jump in front of you in line and have access to the private club.

Everyone else can’t buy online influence. It’s not a true opt-in, opt-out system. It’s prejudiced against people who don’t want or need to be well endowed, virtually. It is not a level playing field and can’t be leveled by money or time, necessarily.

What social profiling does is creates a system of being able to judge a person by their looks, even if those looks are augmented by technology, and say, “You’re not worthy.” I see nothing good coming from that.

Sadly, it’s going to take an Act of Congress — literally — to stop it from happening.

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About the Author

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for Elasticity, one of the world's most innovative digital marketing and public relations firms. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).