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Altimeter is wrong – Klout does not measure social capital

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26 March 2012

Social Networks - Influence - Air France flight tweets used to visualize density and distribution.

Lets start with what they have managed to get right.

Altimeter, and specifically Brian Solis should be congratulated for being a marketer that has advocated the use of social science, when trying to make sense of social media.

When messages are dependent on their spread via social networks rather than through traditional means, social science indeed provides a more correct theoretical framework compared to what media buffs use now.

Altimeter is also right to point out that services like Klout and PeerIndex, although imperfect, will become increasingly important to understand how information flows through media.

Altimeter is correct about one other thing: They point out that Influence is a complicated terrain, and that services like Klout measure potential – rather than actual Influence – although Solis does not do the best job of unpacking why this is the case.

Klout scores show social capital & status?

“At a minimum, these scores indicate the stature someone possesses within social networks… This stature is referred to as social capital…” – Solis for Altimeter

Altimeter says that a person’s reach, relevance and resonance (see below) comes together and contributes to your “social capital”, which is the likelihood that you will influence behaviour. This is really what your Klout “score” is alluding to, they claim. As you can see, almost in the same breath, Altimeter says these scores indicate ‘stature’, but without elaborating much. Which is unfortunate, because status or stature might be closer to what PeerIndex et al shows us, rather than these scores being a proxy for ‘social capital’.

Now social capital is quite an old and much debated concept in social science, and there is not one accepted definition of it, but none of them is quite like the one implied by Altimeter. All the definitions generally refer to a concept where a social network has a value as a whole for those in it, although individuals can indeed access this value. But to over-simplify, it speaks of trust, cooperation, all things that make life inside the network easier for its members.

For sociologists and economists, a network where there’s trust and cooperation has major advantages over groups where such a network is absent. A case in point: It’s generally accepted that the existence of sufficient social capital is one of the prerequisites for democracies to function.

Like many other social-scientific concepts, it is thought to be quite useful, precisely because it looks at groups or networks of people and their relations with each other, but at scale. Social scientists tend to think that individuals are a bit like sub atomic particles are for natural scientists. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle in quantum physics state that we can’t accurately measure the position and momentum of a particle at the same time. We can however predict that if we heat water to a certain temperature, it’s particles as a ‘group’ will vaporise.

Similarly, with a few exit polls we can predict the outcome of an election very accurately. At the same time we struggle to predict how individuals behave.

So you can predict people’s behaviour in groups quite accurately, but you can’t predict individual behaviour that neatly – which is kind of reassuring. And although Solis tips his hat to Heisenberg, he still insists on equating Klout scores – which are very individual, to social capital AND status.

Now, to illustrate why this might be problematic consider this – networks with high amounts of social capital often are quite flat or not very hierarchical (within the network). Large differentiators of status inside groups (hierarchies or inequality), often destroys social capital in that network.

Altimeter’s three pillars of influence

Altimeter claims that Influence rests on three pillars:

Your Reach – which is in turned comprised of three things. Popularity: Britney is very popular and has high reach; Goodwill: Do people think you are a good egg? It stands to reason that if you are liked people will be more receptive to your messages; Proximity: Do you have close ties with others that are influential?

Then there’s Relevance: Clay Shirkey might not have a massive following like Britney Spears, BUT he is followed by many academics and smart people in media and tech. He has subject and topical relevance. Relevance also has three components, says Altimeter, namely Authority: Are you an expert in your field?; Trust: Logical really, and I’d argue you can’t have authority without it; and lastly Affinity: A natural liking or sympathy for someone or something. This last element is not necessarily wrong (in fact I will argue that it’s often crucial) – but it’s not obvious that this is the place to put it.

And then there’s Resonance: Which is how frequent the subject make updates on social media and how this activity travels, and how long it stays around for. This sounds a bit like putting the cart before the horse. Resonance is really what impact we can measure a person is having in social media – after the fact. It fluctuates wildly from day to day (more on this in an upcoming blog post).

The three pillars point toward status

Now I think status is more accurate a description for what’s actually being measured here.

When an already famous person signs up to Twitter, their scores quickly jumps, as their followers (and reach) increase.

But what about the difference between a person famous for being famous (Britney), and a genuine authority on a topic (The so-called Relevance pillar)? Well, in social science there’s a differentiation between ascribed status (status you inherit) and achieved status (status that you earn), which can be used to make a differentiation here as well.

So while the first two pillars – reach & relevance – of Altimeter actually measures status, the third – resonance – is a case by case proxy for actual influence on social media, but after the fact.

In a next blog post we will discuss if and why this case specific after-the-fact influence – is such a poor predictor of future performance.

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