Social media have grown into a multi-billion dollar industry. But, aside from the mountains of greenbacks, what is the most valuable currency in this nascent but booming industry? Whether social media are used for advertising, political commentating, blogging or self-promotion, the answer for many is simple: influence. Now more than ever, social media are opening up dynamic platforms for creating, curating and sharing content, and the mass consumption of tweets, blogs, and other online content delivered “straight from the horse’s mouth” has opened up new possibilities for shaping discourse.
As easy as it is for individuals to tweet and post, it’s tough to be heard and seen when some figures dominate the space. A study released last fall reported that “50% of tweets that are consumed are generated by just 20,000 elite users.” And now a new web tool known as Klout, which measures individuals’ or organizations’ influence on social media, is showing just how much competition is out there. Klout scores range from 1 to 100, with higher scores representing a greater individual online influence. Justin Bieber has a perfect score of 100, President Obama a 92, and Nature magazine a 67. Scores are calculated using an algorithm that includes number of followers, frequency of updates, the Klout scores of your friends and followers, and the number of likes, retweets, and shares.
Who are the top scorers in the realms of science and technology? Wired’s list of Klout “All-Stars” includes celebrity scientist and synthetic biology entrepreneur J. Craig Venter, who has a Klout score of 44 (fairly high for someone who isn’t a pop singer or a nationally published magazine). Transhumanist Alex Lightman has a score of 81 and is a “top influencer” in the topic technology; Peter Diamandis, co-founder of Singularity University, has a score of 60; Singularity University itself has a score of 52 and is labeled “influencer” in the topics Science and Politics. In short, many emerging opinion leaders in the social mediasphere come from the end of the technopolitical spectrum that offers unquestioning support to risky technologies like synthetic biology and embraces fringe ideas like transhumanism.
The social media landscape is not an even playing field: As with other sources of influence, money delivers an edge, and hype often sells. But social media allow all individual content creators to build “klout” by stockpiling followers and proliferating links. Those of us who bring critical lenses to our understanding of emerging technologies can and should engage on this landscape, and bring to it our concerns, our questions, and the social justice and public interest values that motivate them.
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