Book Review: ROI: Return on Influence by Mark W Schaefer, 2012


Home page for ROI:

ROI = return on “investment,” return on “innovation,” return on “imagination,” return on “influence.”

“I” = me.

That “I” can stand for so many things – but in Mark Schaefer’s book, the focus is on influence as measured by social scoring and specifically as measure by, a website that measures a person’s social influence via an algorithm that takes into consideration a person’s online activity across a multitude of social networks and platforms.  Your score can range from 1 to 100, but according to Schaefer, if it’s below 50 you are not worth connecting with, receiving a post or Tweet from, or otherwise waste valuable time with.  Does this sound harsh? Superficial? Ridiculous? Discriminatory? (Oh yes, the legal angle finally appears).

This book consists of 180 pages justifying the existence of social scoring, trying to legitimize it as it claims Klout legitimizes the authority of individuals who throw out content “that is unsubstantiated by personal performance, authority, intellect, or experience” (pg. 74).  How does that balance with the ideas of transparency and authenticity that social media thought leaders pride themselves with as the underpinnings of what makes social media a more trustworthy source than the old media and websites?

Schaefer does have a whole chapter dedicated to the arguments against social scoring – including how the system can be gamed, how the system does not (and cannot) take the offline into account for the final score, how social media celebrities don’t acknowledge its validity, and how it is elitist.  In fact on the last page of the book Scheafer declares, “By definition, influence is elitist.  So by assigning numbers to people and stacking them up in order, the system institutionalizes a culture of haves and have-nots.”  So now discrimination is digital.

Does anyone remember the movie, GATTACA, about a dystopia where humans are engineered and “free-love” children are given the lowest paid jobs and marginalized from the moment of birth thanks to a simple blood test?  Paul Saarinen, Director of Digital Insights and Culture for Bolin Marketing commented in Schaefer’s book “What I would really love to see is a data mash-up between Klout and 23andMe, a company that does genetic testing for health, disease, and ancestry” (pg. 173).

I think about the children who have had Facebook profiles since before they were born.  Their parents have created a digital footprint for them months before they “exist” (meaning – are living) in the real world. In the future, will these children have a right to sue their parents for invasion of privacy, for ruining their lives, based on what their parents posted about them when they were minors and couldn’t speak up for themselves to stop them?

So going back to Paul’s vision – blood test gives me the genetic information as to whether you will be healthy or a drain on a company’s health insurance payments (or a society’s welfare system) + the social score gives me the digital information as to whether you are a valuable content producer in this society, and where does it stop before we justify the ending of a life (or a career, or an academy journey) before it has begun?

Sounds far-fetched?  Joe Fernandez, CEO of Klout is quoted on page 174: “Every website should be able to be customized based on what I’m influential about and who I influence.  Klout becomes your personal VIP pass to the world.  Could you even use Klout as currency?” (emphasis added).  Add to that Schaefer’s contention that “Disney, Chevrolet, Nike, Revlon – nearly 3,000 companies are using Klout’s data in some form.”  (pg. 98)  What are they using the data for?  To reward certain influencers via perks, to determine whether to hire someone over another, to decide whether to respond to a customer complaint or not (only if the customer has a high enough Klout score), etc.  Scheafer also makes the comment that “this sorting keeps people in their place” (pg. 180).  And who is Klout to determine that place?

The Federal Trade Commission in 2011 issued a notice that it would prosecute individuals who list false credentials in their social media profiles under false advertising.  Should these scores not be held to that standard too and therefore is illegal in their concept? Are these scores not falsely misleading?  And if I hire you or purchase your product because of your high Klout score, and the product and/or you are defective, have I not been harmed to my detriment because of false advertising? Should Klout then be liable because I relied on its score?

PS – Klout claims it keeps its algorithm a secret so people don’t learn to game the system.  But it also means no one else can validate what Klout is doing.

I am part of a group that works diligently in the social media field – we have seen and been exposed to many who claim to be what they are not – social media experts.  Credentialing and degrees for social media professionals is a hot topic and continues to be debated because we continue to be served visualizations – graphic images – short cut numeric scores – as to an individuals’ value without any substantiating evidence that they are who they say they are or they know what they say they know.  Schaefer’s book and his accounts of Klout and other social scoring sites do not convince me that they get it right.  It convinces me that gaming these systems is “big business” and many “Klout coaches” will soon hang out their shingles.

I do not agree with the social scoring systems in place.  I can understand why business wants a short cut for cost-effective target marketing.  But I believe business is run by people – by us – by humans – and that as humans running business we need to maintain our humanity.  It is so easy to give it away – a little at a time – a score point at a time.

Scheafer claims that these discrepancies and discrimination with the social scoring systems will lead to revolution (pg. 180).  Unfortunately, revolutions are not always won by the deserving, regardless of your definition and the final score.


The opinions expressed in this book review are mine alone.  As you can see I felt passionate enough to write about it but know others may not feel the same.  You are welcome to participate in the conversation with your comments but keep them respectful and on topic.

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