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The Failure of LinkedIn - Quality

During a discussion over our first grilled meal of the year (brats), J-- and I got into a discussion about LinkedIn. I asked J--, as a recruiter, what was she looking for in a recommendation? As we talked through the ins and outs of a telephone conversation with a listed reference, it become readily apparent that a certain quality in a recommendation was needed to lend credibility. For instance, there was a base assumption that the person to whom she would be talking was hand-picked to deliver the best possible recommendation for a candidate; that's why the person made the candidate's recommendations list. But it took a very special level of interaction to raise that recommendation to a level where it could push a candidate over the top, and much of that interaction started in the initial interview with the candidate.

On the Web, this scenario doesn't play out much. Take LinkedIn for example. If you are hiring someone and find their LinkedIn profile during a Web search on the candidate, recommendations for that candidate really carry little weight with a recruiter unless there's some previous value placed on the recommending person (say, the recruiter happens to know the person giving the recommendation). Otherwise, the recommendation carries varying levels of implied authority from Former Boss Who Really Liked Candidate to Random Co-Worker Who Got a Reciprocal Recommendation. There is no quality behind a recommendation.

Many recommendations succeed or fail on the ability of the person writing the recommendation; someone who is articulate and efficient in their writing can craft a recommendation that sounds fantastic. What it doesn't do is provide what a recruiter should be looking for; corroboration and authority. J-- and I joked that we should just recommend each other since our last names are different, but that raised the very real issue that that is likely happening in a dozen shades all across the LinkedIn network. A recommendation on anyone's profile is without authority on it's face, and the probability of talking to the recommender to put some authority to a recommendation approaches zero.

Now, I pick on LinkedIn, but this isn't unique to that site. The LinkedIn model is ripe for exploitation just as the analog model of resumes and recommendations is. Most, if not all, interactive "Web 2.0" sites have this same problem; Digg, StumbleUpon, and their ilk have been gamed forever. The challenge for these sites isn't the content model, it's the arms race of staying ahead of the spammers and exploiters. For LinkedIn, the challenge isn't spammers, it's trust, a battle they are winning. The anecdotal success stories of someone being found through LinkedIn are the equivalent of winning the lottery: it won't happen to you.

As we chewed through brats and the issues around quality in the LinkedIn recommendations, pretty much every idea we had was open to gaming:

  • Allow co-workers from the same company with overlapping employment periods to flag reviews: too easy to say you worked together when you didn't, open to crowd-based reprisal attacks, liability laws.
  • Certify recommendations through a third party: who would be trusted by both candidate and potential employer, who'll pay for it.
  • Highlight recommendations by ratio of recommenders to number of employees in the recommender's company (10 of 20 is better than 3 of 10,000): could argue that the opposite is true just as well, no strong case that either is true.
  • Build algorithms to look for suspicious activity (X or more recommendations from same employer in Y period of time from similar IPs): it's implied suspiciousness, not proof of gaming.

And, the last nail in the coffin, not everyone will have a profile, so it's not a reliable tool for a recruiter anyway. In the end, we didn't come up with any way to provide a tool for a candidate to make a recommendation anything other than the digital equivalent to the analog list of references. In fact, it had a little less value because the candidate can control the recommendations whereas the current model produces some surprising conversations with listed references. (Yes, people list references that give bad references.)

I'm not saying "don't have a LinkedIn profile", I'm just saying that all those recommendations may not count for quite as much as you think. Or, if you have a way to solve the quality issue, drop me a line and we'll be millionaires together.


  1. I've been wanting to find a place to say this:

    What do we do now that the introduction has become an commodity?

    Ryan, I'm finally building up something of a social network with Twitter, which is interesting, and I've been involved in the reclamation of New Orleans now for going on three years, so I've got this new career and specialty that I need to define, for my own sake, and for the sake of the people I'm working with.

    Introductions come and go, and I never know what to do with them. I'm way beyond being impressed with anyone credentials. It really means nothing to me, if they are not going to be of assistance to New Orleans. I can look at a lot of people and say, I've been lied to by better than the likes of you, and you're not even a good liar. The people who are going to be of real help to you, you're not going to know until you ask them for something and they deliver.

    The introduction is a commodity. I've got plenty of introductions. It becomes a matter of vetting them all quickly.

    It might be a different matter for an HR person looking to bring someone into an organization, but to my mind, each introduction is a connection to another social network. There is something that I'm setting out to accomplish. If I don't have that clearly defined, then all these introductions are hugely distracting.

    Once upon a time, an introduction really meant that someone felt you needed to know someone else. This whole introduction machinery means that you know everyone so that you know no one.


  2. By way of response, I'm going to hit specific points in your comment and give you a response to what I hear. I realize that this may not be what you intended to say, but is simply what I hear.

    "I’m way beyond being impressed with anyone credentials."

    "I'm an asshole." I mean that in the nicest possible way, asshole to asshole, but you are starting from a position of distrust and expecting people to prove themselves to you. This implies that you see yourself as more valuable than the person to whom you are speaking/reading/looking at, and regard them as inferior, requiring that they demonstrate value beyond sincerity.

    "The people who are going to be of real help to you, you’re not going to know until you ask them for something and they deliver."

    Proof is realized through value to you or your cause. Everyone is devalued until they are bodily or monetarily contributing in ways you have deemed to be useful.

    "The introduction is a commodity."

    In the context of your previous comments, you don't care who someone is until they deliver something of use.

    "This whole introduction machinery means that you know everyone so that you know no one."

    If by "introduction machinery" you mean "social" tools such as LinkedIn, Facebook, etc. then yes, absolutely. Take my "social" circle; I'm connected to Ed Vielmetti through Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Google Talk, Google Reader, and probably a couple other networks I don't even know I'm part of. And I've never met the guy.

    Everyone deals with tons of introductions, though, social web or not. I meet dozens of people every month who have zero contribution to my project at that time. But, I have to keep them in my circle because more often than not, they pop up again and do have impact to my work. Just because the introduction to someone, physical or otherwise, isn't fruitful doesn't mean they won't prove otherwise helpful in the future.

    You assume that vetting is easily and accurately done instantaneously. It rarely is. Quickly dismissing someone (as you've blogged about) is usually more harmful in the long term than helpful in the short term.


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