On a scale of 1-100, who are the most influential people in the world?
Well, let's see. Frequently shirtless Russian President Vladimir Putin is an 86, not bad, until you consider frequently shirtless rapper Lil' Wayne is a 94. Twitter newbie Warren Buffet is an impressive 90, but still trails both Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga. And while Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg can boast an 83, swimsuit model Kate Upton is also "leaning in" with the same score.
Welcome to the world according to Klout, a five-year-old San Francisco company trying to determine what your two cents are really worth.
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If you use Twitter, you already have a Klout score (users of Facebook or Instagram must opt-in), a number determined by a team of engineers in San Francisco and their boss, Klout CEO and co-founder Joe Fernandez.
A few years ago, Fernandez had jaw surgery and couldn't have a normal conversation for three months. While relying on social media to communicate, it became clear that when it comes to, say, picking a good Mexican restaurant, some of the people on Twitter deserve more credibility than others.
He then remembered his boyhood days in Las Vegas, back when his father worked at Caesar's Palace catering to high rollers, and an idea clicked.
"These guys would gamble hundreds of thousands of dollars in a weekend," Fernandez said. "So I really saw how they were treated, the perks they had, and realized people get benefits for how much money they spend somewhere, but never for their ability to share information with the world. Social media is what makes that possible."
Klout uses complicated algorithms to measure how many "likes" and "retweets" we all get every day and then tries to connect the most influential people with companies that will let them try their products for free and, hopefully, spread the word.
People with high scores are known within Klout as "influencers," and in recent years, perks for these people have ranged from free ice cream to all-expense-paid trips to Seattle to get free use of a Chevy Volt for the weekend.
"Basically, I just wanted to see how high I could raise my score just talking about bacon," said Bay Area blogger Bonnie Burton. "I'm waiting for my bacon perk. I'm hoping one day I come home and there's just a large box of bacon waiting for me."
With a Klout score of 85, her dream is not so far-fetched, and Fernandez imagines a day when your Klout score will automatically prompt the usher at a show to come pull you out of line and take you to a VIP area or have a hotel upgrade your room.
"There are call centers where the Klout score is built in to the software," he said. "So, potentially, you could speak directly to a manager because they don't want you tweeting or blogging, or whatever, 'This is why I would never buy this product.'"
But one problem that comes with inventing a new form of currency is that it only works if we all agree on what that currency is worth.
Does Snooki really deserve an 87 while Doris Kearns Goodwin is a 60? It depends whether you are looking for a trusted source on Abraham Lincoln or jello shots.
Fernandez added that frequency of social media engagement matters, which helps explain why Pope Francis and his 41 tweets is just two Klout points higher than me and my 3,800.
But still -- either someone needs to start kissing my ring, or Fernandez needs to tweak the algorithm ... again.
Just a few months ago, Justin Bieber was the most powerful person on the planet, according to Klout, with a score of 99. But then Klout changed its algorithm and now the president is the top individual at 98 (but still trails the Los Angeles Dodgers at 99).
"We are always evolving the Klout algorithm, whether it is new data sources we acquire -- for example, we added real-world influence, so Wikipedia, New York Times articles even just LinkedIn what your profession is, is contributing a lot more to your Klout score," Fernandez said.
But wouldn't changing the algorithm all the time be the same as changing the value of currency, or manipulating a credit score, causing a potential massive freak out? Fernandez said while Klout takes its algorithm changes seriously, his company tries to keep their users informed of the changes.
"People care about their score" he said. "They're putting a lot of work to enhance the score, so we put a lot of work into communicating why the score is changing -- and social [media], in general, is changing every month. You have Pinterest coming out, you have Google+, you have mobile, you have millions of people every day joining these networks and new behaviors, so it's not like a credit score. ... The land is shifting really quickly and we need to be ahead of that curve."
Given the ebb and flow of our online lives, it all seems so random and arbitrary. So maybe the shrewdest part of Fernandez's business is the fact that when you put a number next to a person, ego takes over.
"When mine would start falling, I would get anxious," Burton said. "I was one of those people that checked my Klout score every day."
"It's not about putting you on a treadmill or figuring out who's on the A-list," Fernandez said. "It's understanding that every person is influential about something, and giving them credit for that. So, we put the data there. People can obsess about it as much or as little as is appropriate to them."
So if you want to obsess, and even cheat to get your Klout score up, Burton has a great tip.
"Just tweet a really, pretty cute picture of a cat," she said. "If you tweet a video of a cute little baby monkey riding a cat or, like, riding a dog, or you get any kind of cute animal doing anything, back up."
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