The New York Times has a great story today on the the demise of the impersonal “staffing solution” and the rise of the referral. I love it because it highlights the way that online social networks makes our world “smaller”, but not in the way that people thought that they would have. Someone in the 1990s, making predictions about how the Internet would affect hiring, would predict that companies could easily hire the best talent from anywhere in the country and probably have them work remotely. Instead, the internal referral is only becoming more powerful and regional centers of industry like San Francisco have completely held onto their power.
I think it truly is that LinkedIn has altered the landscape. It does a very effective job for recruiters of illuminating the people that you didn’t know were there – the friends and peers of your very best employees. I know that if I were looking to hire a top performer for any position, I would just go through my LinkedIn contacts and blast out a question to all the people whose judgment I trusted. Recruiters have slightly more sophisticated tactics, but the upshot is that the online social network ends up reinforcing the offline social network rather than supplanting it.
Something completely different and analogous – one of the shocking findings of political science researchers profiled in “The Victory Lab” was that the old-fashioned methods really are the most effective. Nothing but nothing is as effective in moving your vote as having a neighbor knocking on your door. TV, radio, direct mail – all of that pales in comparison to the power of a meaningful human interaction. The Obama campaign relied heavily on technology in the 2008 and 2012, but not to reach voters through direct marketing – the technology was there to organize and facilitate the massively complex infrastructure of having millions of face-to-face interactions.
Digital media really has not driven a revolution in social behavior, but seems to work best when enabling and extending the types of social behavior that people do anyway. As a side note, that makes me very curious about the long-term viability of Facebook – it totally breaks the pattern of social interaction of the past couple centuries in the industrialized world, where people move around and reinvent themselves. Rather by enabling persistent communication and contact across a lifetime, it makes things look a lot more like a village where everyone knows everyone else. This is obviously not a unique observation…but at the same time, I think it’s more likely that our Western social norms of lifecycle-driven reinvention will break Facebook than vice-versa. For that same reason, LinkedIn seems like a much more appealing line of business to be in – an online resume storehouse and professional network that you can customize to put forward whatever you need to communicate.
I still need to think through what this actually implies for the available opportunity areas for social networking, but I think the framework is clear: look at how people make decisions and interact offline, and develop ways to enhance and extend those interactions. Another reason, by the way, to be very dubious of the enterprise valuations of social networks – people don’t want to be advertising vehicles either on- or offline.