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What's Your Number?

November 11, 2011, 10:09 PM

Your whole life, reduced to a single number. That’s the goal of an increasing number of companies that are attempting to analyze specific aspects of your life and quantify certain behaviors with a single score. The best known of these companies is Klout, which promises to quantify your Twitter and Facebook behaviors into a single measure of "online influence." By some estimates, over 100 million people now have Klout scores - whether they know it or not. And with the recent popularity of Klout, new scorekeepers are emerging as well, such as the FICO Medication Adherence Score that tells health care insurers how likely you are to take your prescribed medicine and Identified, which gives employers a single measure of how "in demand" you are as a professional.

Probably the least obtrusive of these new scores is your Klout score. Just as your credit score is a single figure for tracking your overall creditworthiness and the probability of paying back any debt, Klout scores are a measure of your social media savvy and the probability of your being able to influence any of the people in your network to take a specific action. Moreover, just as credit scores became the best friends of bankers, these new influence scores are becoming the best friends of marketers. Imagine being able to fine-tune any marketing campaign so that you only spend your money on the "people who matter" - the people who can influence other people to buy your stuff. The higher your Klout score, the more likely it is that people will be contacting you to accept free "Perks" or attend free events.

While Klout largely started off as a fun way to keep track of how well you were engaging with others online, the score has started to take on other meanings as well - such as a way to separate the social media "haves" from the social media "have-nots." The "haves" get invited to VIP events and receive free Perks, the "have-nots" get... ignored. The higher your Klout score, the more likely it is you will wind up on the radar screens of marketers and brands. When Klout recently announced a revision in the way it calculates scores, ripples of protest went out online as influencers who had worked so hard to build up their followers and friends and engage with others online found that their Klout scores were reduced by as much as 20%. Imagine waking up one day and finding that 20% of your net worth had been rudely devoured by a bear market - you're not going to feel too happy about things.

And that's where the new services like Identified start to get a bit spooky - they are now extending this measure of "influence" into places like the employment market, where a single score could impact your chance to land your next job. It's all meant to be "frictionless" and build on data you're already providing to the Interwebs, but there’s something vaguely Orwellian, Kafkaesque or Zamyatinskii (you pick) about any company that attempts to distill the sum total of our behaviors into a single number. It gets even spookier when you don't really know what goes into making that number, and when corporations and government bodies are able to make potentially life-changing decisions based on a single score.

GaryShteyngartIn a recent interview with the McKinsey Quarterly, bestselling author Gary Shteyngart echoed this view. Super Sad True Love Story - his new novel that offers a dystopian view of the future where "credit poles" broadcast our credit ratings to others and people are able to check their digital devices for a constant update on their overall social rank and status - personal lives are reduced to a single number:

"Oh, the rankings take over people’s lives. Everyone wants to move their rating up, and everyone is obsessed with their number. It’s a very quantitative society. Everything is about enhancing one’s numerical value. Nothing is about the qualitative value. Lenny, the main character, is a dinosaur in this world because he still believes in the unquantifiable qualities of individuals. And he is constantly being told that they don’t matter. He’s constantly being told by his boss and everyone else to get his rankings up."

As a society, we’ve always been willing to let numbers define who we are. The SAT score was, for many of us, the first time we ever encountered the power of a single number to define our lives. That score was soon followed by another number that doggedly followed us around throughout adulthood: the credit score. As we age, another number will take precedence: the size of our total retirement nest egg. But consider this -- even if your SAT score was not 99th-percentile or your total net worth was wiped out by the housing market bubble --  your "number" was entirely private. It was not public knowledge unless you "opted-in." There’s something exhilarating and liberating about these new companies promising to quantify our lives -- but also something terrifying and intimidating when these numbers are public rather than private. So... What’s your number?


Businessman Using Laptop With Statistics in Background / Shutterstock


What's Your Number?

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