The Problem With Social Profiling
The Problems With Social Profiling
The Problems With Social Profiling

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 the founder of Social Media Explorer and one of the most notable and outspoken voices in the social media marketing industry. He is a noted marketing keynote speaker, author of two books and unapologetic bourbon aficionado. He can also be found at
  • 3rdimension

    Thank you for writing and posting. I Google searched “social profiling” and found this article. I have been profiled on a few occasions, and it doesn’t feel good to observe and be treated differently because of other’s superficial and prejudice ways, good or bad. Profiling isn’t all negative though, in some cases, it can help aid some skeptics in red flag warning signs, (if someone doesn’t have a good feeling or vibe) about a certain individual. That’s the only time I think it could come in handy, but not to be abused and overdone to the point of self diluting ones self from a realistic and fair reasonable perspective. There’s a difference between social profiling and discernment, the difference between judging others and using good judgment. There’s a fine line between the two and should be exercised with caution and responsibility.

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  • I have done BE in electronics and communications and then MBA in marketing and HR. does the job of social media marketing suit my qualification well? i want to know the scope of social media marketing in india and abroad -eg- gulf. howz the money and how much can i grow in this field? please clarify on the growth oppportunities.Thanks for sharing the information.

  • Great blog, I do agree that just giving a number and judging with the number is as bad as judging small children through their report cards. 

    Here I may be biased with my product Actwitty, we do engage in social media analytics but to create a topical sense of individuals through their social media. Like trying to find out if one is a foodie or techie or a philanthropist to quickly understand each other. The reason is to engage better and get focused attention.

    I agree with your point that there has to be some way to integrate the offline effort some how with the online presence to get a more holistic understanding of individual. I would like to hear from you.

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  • Jason,

    Sorry – a bit late on this one. Perhaps we don’t need to worry too much.  I have a suspicion that digital influencers may not be that important, and profiling based on this likewise will be proven to be a red herring.

    However, I think the real issue with social profiling is the uses to which social data can be put – something I Huffington Posted about a while back

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  • deepika rawat

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  • SuedeHat

    Great piece.  I work in social media marketing and I spend time helping my BRANDS shine and increase their influence. I don’t have the time to focus on promoting myself all day on Twitter and retweeting stuff by other social media marketers to gain more followers and a higher score. I’m being paid to do that for commercial entities.

  • Hey Falls, 

    It’s about time you wrote this. 


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  • L Ledesma

    Yikes. Let’s hope the company I interviewed with on Saturday isn’t judging me based on my pitiful Klout score! It’s disturbing how social media profiling has grown to hold to much weight when considering employees these days. I agree it that it can definitely help weed out unfavorable candidates but where do you draw the line? It really proves how privacy these days is virtually (no pun intended) nonexistent.

  • Whether we “like” it or not, every business, membership group and individual has the right to employ whatever benchmarks it chooses to determine membership, employment, association and/or affiliation.  The last thing we need to do is start having fits that for all intents and purposes, if carried to their logical ends, must lead to demands for the establishment of a whole new ‘victim’ class.  Don’t we have enough of them already? 

    Your dislike of Klout being a gauge and/or barrier to some jobs is fine.  But it pretty much ends there.  While it is not always allowed because we’ve lost touch with some critical foundations, liberty (as originally intended) dictates that the corporate entity – be it a business, a club, a city, a neighborhood or a family – must maintain the right to create parameters for inclusion and exclusion.   The mere thought of Congress trying to regulate such matters as Klout or other social media analytics scores makes me retch.   Enough of this whining about victimization!  So a guy didn’t get a job.  So what?  Maybe it’ll be bad for the business in the long run.  So what?  Maybe it will be great?  So what? 

    It should not be our concern.

    Government getting into the business of regulating analytics is a dangerous thing to wish for.  What’s next?  Forcing businesses to hire people whose résumés don’t stack up to the others because it’s discriminatory to judge someone on their ability to write a great résumé?  What about having the Fed force banks to give mortgages to people whose credit scores indicate they shouldn’t ever own a home because they are not equipped in some concrete manner to be fiscally responsible?  Oh, wait! Didn’t we try that already?  And how did it work out?

    The bottom line is this:  Klout is what it is and will continue to improve and become the ‘big tool’ for hiring and other decision-making that its founders want it to be; or, some other tool will come along and beat it on reliability.  It is an inevitability that, in the long run, social analytics that help businesses prudently discriminate between “the right fit” and “the wrong fit” will actually help companies (and other corporate entities) do what they do or make what they make better…      

    …unless one or more branches of our Federal Government steps in and screws it all up.

    • Thanks for chiming in Bob. Love the discussion points that are coming up because of this. Exactly what I hoped for.

  • Social profiling is no better than any other profiling that is going on. It’s biased and unfair and not scientific! Sometimes technology takes a wrong turn, and this may be one of those turns. Thanks for a really interesting post, Jason.

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  • aaroneden

    Social profiling, no matter how good it sounds, seems like playing with Greek fire – pretty dangerous.  Why?  Because I think that these social profiling platforms are flawed/easily gamed.  Maybe, we’ll see the rise of black markets where you can buy digital influence.. far-fetched, I guess.

  • RossNunamaker

    There is alot I don’t like about Klout-type services. They aren’t very accurate and numerous articles have pointed out the flaws.

    The score is not about ability, professionalism, or rank amongst peers. It is not about marketers, it is about marketing.

    The trick is finding folks who have a niche and getting them to promote your widget via free samples and perks (which is an FCC violation for the individual who peomotes as a result without disclosure).

    Celebrities get perks all the time, now an active consumer can get them too. It is kind of like when blogs first allowed anyone to be heard and the publishers of all types were outraged at the thought.

  • budakhan

    Klout scoring has problems but it is somewhat based on ability whereas profiling someone based on race never did have any merit on ability. Anyone can work toward the goal of having a higher Klout score but no one can change their ethnicity. The two are not the same. 

  • Klout is IMHO nothing more than “professionals” playing the high school game of populars vs unpopulars.  The best part of the mentioned Wired article is the last 4 paragraphs.

    Here’s my favorite part and what I wished would resonate with digital marketing folks:

    “The un-Kloutiest’s thoughts, jokes, and bubbles of honest emotion felt rawer, more authentic, and blissfully oblivious to the herd. Like unloved TV shows, these people had low Nielsen ratings—no brand would ever bother to advertise on their channels. And yet, these were the people I paid the most attention to. They were unique and genuine. That may not matter to marketers, and it may not win them much Klout. But it makes them a lot more interesting.”

  • Aspects of Social Media have freaked people out since it has come on the scene.  Eventually we find some use for that creepy feature in our lives and suddenly it is creepy no longer (or the feature is removed because no one uses it).  I don’t mean to swim upstream here (based on all the comments) but I feel this article is a bit over the top.  Let me explain… #1 per Chris Lake’s response, would you really want to work for a fool that used Klout as his ultimate criteria for hiring?  #2 I disagree with your assertion that you can’t level the “influence” playing field with time and money.  If you put in the time to educate yourself and the effort to push what you have learned into the marketplace, your influence will grow. #3 You would not see the same level of success of viral content with out people of “influence” introducing the content to their networks.  Therefore, are brands smart or sleazy for trying to promote their product through these channels?  So someone gets some free samples of tea because they use twitter alot… and someone who doesn’t tweet get’s none.  Is this really a civil rights issue?  I am much more concerned about what my score is!!!!  LOL

    • Jen Zingsheim

       I’ll argue with your point #3. Are you familiar with the work of Duncan Watts? His work obliterates the hypothesis that people of “influence” are the ones who spread content. He says that any person can be the one who starts a trend or tips the scales–the key factor is that the audience needs to be ready to hear the message. I think he makes some compelling points, ones that we, as PR people and marketers, have been conditioned to think the exact opposite of.

      • Paul Adams makes substantially the same points in his book, ‘Grouped.’  He also shred’s much of Gladwell’s ‘Tipping Point.’ 

      • I’ll check it out.  Thanks Jen!

    • I’ll concur, Chris, that the concept is a bit over-stated. But I don’t think it’s far from being realistic, either. And while you have a point on time, money can equal the playing field for most loyalty and reward programs. Money can’t buy you Klout (at least not yet). I still think there’s a philosophical issue with that. There’s no simple way for the field to be leveled, which presents issues. And like my comment to Jeremiah below, all it will take is one lawmaker seeing their rival has a bigger Klout score and an investigation will ensue. I’m not sure I want to be a marketer then. ;-)

      • Thanks for the reply Jason.  The lawmakers larger concern should be their Klouchebag score as well!!  Ha!  Keep up the good work.

  • Couldn’t agree more, and it both pisses me off and scares me that Klout could potentially cost qualified people job opportunities. I deleted my Klout profile because I didn’t want them having access to my information and didn’t like the idea of being assigned an arbitrary score determined by an always-changing, secret algorithm. On one hand I’d like to think that I wouldn’t want to work for a place that based hiring decisions on Klout scores anyway; on the other, I hate that a small part of me is worrying about potentially having to explain to a potential employer why I don’t have a Klout score and worrying if it would make me a lesser candidate in their eyes.

    • Sadly, it could Maggie. Here’s hoping we continue the conversation to the point anyone you would want to work for understands the issue better.

  • Thanks Jason, I appreciate your response, and hope to see you at one of your next events! 

    However I want to ‘counter counter’ the premise and remind that companies already segment customers by high value, total purchase value, lifestyle value, and net worth already.  

    When you look closely, some brands already segment by persona, (which can include age, race, gender) so profiling at the racial level is already live and real.  

    Therefore, profiling isn’t anything new, we’re just using new forms of data to segment value.

    • Jen Zingsheim

       It’s true that companies do segment their paying customers like that–but they are doing so to market to them. What Jason is addressing here is a whole ‘nuther kettle of fish–companies assessing potential employment value, or the value in addressing a customer’s complaints, based on a score–a score that many people don’t even know they have.

      I think they do so at their own peril. At some point, they will ignore the P.J. O’Rourke-type-individual’s complaint, only to find an article written about the experience in the WSJ.

      • Jason, Sam, Jen thank you for the additional perspectives.  Jason, the legal bent is not one I actively considered, thank you for that.  

    • @jowyang:disqus , In addition to Jen’s comment what many businesses do when profiling or even segmenting their customers is based on the customers’ specific interactions with the brand. Even when 3rd party data is purchased to augment the customer profile, all these data points are cross-referenced with cultural and situational analysis to determine a market strategy.

      Sadly, when it comes to influence measurement, marketing, sales and HR teams seem to allow Klout’s ranking to dictate their perception of that individuals value. Influence metrics are making Big Data bigger and Big Thinking smaller.

      Sam – Sensei

    • Certainly true, Jeremiah. But I worry that the attention that social profiling may attract — that of legislators, etc., will finally crack open the curtain on marketing and all these areas of targeting may become the subject of legislative scrutiny. All it will take is one law maker seeing their Klout score is 17 and their opponent’s is 71 and the fit will hit the shan, as it were. If we thought SOPA was bad, wait until the government finally gets to see what marketers are capable of in playing favorites with segmentation. Perhaps I’m overstating it, but if they’d seriously consider legislation like SOPA, they’ll feast upon the “profiling” efforts and non-level playing fields they create.

      •  It would be incredibly ironic were Congresscritters, who depend so heavily on granular demographic targeting and historical behavior patterns to get elected and reelected, were to freak out and ban social profiling.  Having done my share of political campaign targeting, I have to tell you that anything an employer might do to profile you pales in comparison to what candidates do. 

  • If you don’t hire somebody because they have a low Klout score then clearly you should be fired. Sam Fiorella got off lightly. Imagine working for a boss that stupid?

  • Jason, I agree that judging people on their Klout score or any other single criteria is at best a poor hiring practice and at worst, just plain stupid.  I am glad that you shed a light on this practice by pointing out the ways that such profiling could lead people astray and the fact that it happens in ways that can be devastating to people who don’t deserve it. The unfortunate reality is that you can’t control it. The attempt to do so would lead to a slippery slope where it may not be legal to pay a blogger with a lot of page views to promote your product or send samples to someone with a large Twitter following.

    • Agree that the slope gets slippery, Ilana. But the courts are going to get hold of a lot of social media soon and we’re not going to like any of it. 

    • Jen Zingsheim

      The key here, of course, is that Klout could step in and make it clear that they don’t condone using a Klout score for something as serious as determining someone’s employment potential. Freebies and upgraded hotel rooms because a brand has a warped sense of how much traction they’ll get from an online Tweet is one thing. A job is another thing entirely.

      The FTC has already published guidelines on blogger disclosure–you can pay them to promote products, etc. but it needs to be disclosed. People deserve to know at the outset what they are dealing with–if a company will base your hiring on a Klout score, they should disclose that in the job description: “anyone with a Klout score of X or lower need not apply.” At least we’d know who to avoid that way–I certainly wouldn’t want to work for a company that didn’t understand the limitations of a free online scoring system. It also goes to show that the government absolutely will step in if they perceive that there is a problem.

      Will Klout step up to the plate here and establish boundaries? I wouldn’t hold my breath.

  • Jen Zingsheim

    Jason, I could not agree with you more. It’s appalling that companies are using a silly, game-based system to assess who to hire. I’ve worked in state government and politics, and if this becomes widespread, I do believe that government will step in and start regulating. You can’t engage in a practice that puts peoples’ livelihoods at stake like this and not expect someone to think it needs regulating.

    “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.”

    I agree with this whole-heartedly. BTW, I liked this post so much it was the subject of the media monitoring minute I recorded for today’s FIR Podcast.

    • Awesome, Jen. Nice to inspire others to take the topic further!

  • Thanks for the kind words Jason. Not sure brands – and especially tech/marketing firms are getting the message. I keep seeing job ads that include “high Klout” scores as desirable “qualities” in candidates. See here for a current example 

    • Oy. Keep on keepin’ on Sam. You’re a good egg.

  • whitneyhoffman

    Part of it is whether or not a popularity contest really tells you very much about who can move the needle for you.  And that requires more than just surface passing things along, it’s about driving action and ultimately sales.  I feel like I have a tight group of friends who can move the needle meaningfully for me when it needs to be done, but that occurs on channels not measured solely online, and the relationship we’ve had over time.  It’s not always about number of contacts, but the quality of those contacts to each person, which is very hard to measure objectively.

    But as well all know, sometimes we have influence we don’t even know or appreciate, and the gauge is dangerous if it becomes one of those “believing your own press” issues, ie. “Don’t you know who I am?  I have a klout score of 73 this week!”   And it requires an equal part of responsibility in using your influence hammer responsibly, which not everyone does.  

    Ah, the jaded among us are those of us who have been on these channels from the “early days” ie. 5 years ago, when it was just geeks and explorers, and less Prom Queens.

    • I hear ya, Whit. Thanks for chiming in.

  • George Takei’s Klout score is 73. That’s all you need to know.

  • I agree with you and it scares me as well.  First the goal seemed to be to get the most fans/followers on the newest network, and now this is the next step.  Because of it, like on every network, there are people who game the system to benefit their Klout scores to make the appearance of a level of influence that is not true.  The system is new, just a gauge, and it’s scary to see how participating in the million of networks out there is your only way to gain more influence.

    • True that Craig. It’ll be interesting to watch this all develop.


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