Social Astroturf

Social Astroturf

As everybody knows, social networks are all the rage these days.  What makes a network valuable is not just how many people are in it, but how many ways those people are connected.  So, if you own a social network, you need to not just work on adding people, but also on getting those people to create interconnections between themselves.

 One of the more interesting social networks out there is LinkedIn.  The graph maintained by LinkedIn is all about people's employment.  Naturally, it's inhabited by recruiters who pay money for the right to search LinkedIn's massive collection of resumes.

Now, as anybody who has ever applied for a job, or sifted through resumes trying to fill a position, knows, what other people say about you is more important than what you say about yourself.  If you tell me,"I can fix widgets", I'm not too impressed.  But, if my friend Joe tells me, "That guy used to work for me.  He's the best widget fixer I've ever seen", then I'm going to sit up and take notice.

Naturally, the folks at LinkedIn know this, and are trying to monetize the concept.  And in doing so, they have turned something valuable into utter trash.  I'm talking about their endorsement system.  Somewhere in the last year or so, messages started popping up, "Fred Foobar endorsed Wally Wombat for widget fixing".  Or, more personally, I would get a notification, "Fred Foobar has endorsed you for widget fixing", and be presented with buttons by which I could accept or reject the endorsement.

At first, I avoided these, on the basis of it just not seeming professional.  I've always thought of references as being something special, to be handed out to a potential employer only at the very last stage of the process, when an offer is imminent, and only after checking with the reference to make sure they don't mind.  Apparently, thinking like that went away with advent of the "overshare and I don't care" generation.  I even got a few emails from people I had worked with (and, in some cases, only marginally, in another department of a large company), asking me for such endorsements.  I politely turned them all down, citing my professionalism concerns.

Gradually, I got to see how the system really worked.  For example, I recently was presented with a screen like the one above.  Four different endorsement requests, from people who I haven't work with in years, and even then, barely knew.  For skills which appear to have been chosen randomly.  I don't even need to think, I just need to click the "+ Endorse" button.  Likewise, I got three endorsements from people I know.  Two of them are people I know outside of my professional life, who couldn't possibly evaluate my level of skill in the areas for which they offered endorsements.  One of them is at least somebody I worked with professionaly, but that was close to 15 years ago.  Well, at least they're batting 0.500 on knowing what I'm good at.