THE HUMAN SUPERMARKET: LINKEDIN AND THE COMMODIFICATION OF THE WESTERN MIDDLE CLASS

Posted On 9th January 2014

The impact of the internet on retail, and even recruitment, is pretty well known by now. It’s largely discussed for its negative impacts on traditional institutions (high street department stores, newspapers, advertising agencies, recruiters) and its upside for the end user (the shopper, the hiring company).

Let’s discuss what it means for a jar of jam instead.

Whether it meets its executioner in a supermarket or a delivery van probably doesn’t matter. It’s been rendered into a fundamentally unnatural state and then used. If I was that jam I’d be pretty upset. Once I was a beautiful, irregular, unique product of nature. Now I’m just a commodity. Soon I’ll be down the pan. How I got to the death house doesn’t matter.

Now, let’s talk about people instead. LinkedIn is turning the world into a human online supermarket. It’s just too easy to use, there are so many people to choose from and it’s not very expensive at all.

Other means of recruitment do still exist and no doubt will continue. But, for the most part, they are doomed cultural artefacts of the past and in time will pass.

How long that takes is anyone’s guess. But it’s already happening and it’s hard to see how the process could be thrown into reverse.

So, may I compare you to a jar full of jam?

You, of course, are you. A unique individual with a peculiar history. You think, feel, write, move in a way that no one else does and you like to be seen that way.

OK. Traditional recruitment methods do limit your expression a bit, and in some countries and industries more than others. There has always been a need to present yourself in the best way possible, even if that was a little bit contrived.

However, you had some control over the message you put across in your CV and cover letter. You could choose a style to write in, an order of events to follow, the prominence to give your education and so on. Heavens, you could even write a functional CV!

LinkedIn makes this much harder. Basically, it turns you into a commodity.

Unless you follow its rules carefully you will barely feature in a recruiter’s searches at all. If you leave your photograph off you are penalised. If you don’t choose 50 “Skills and Expertise” entries you are under coded and hobbled. You have to give details on your last three jobs, and least something on your education. You have 120 characters (including spaces) for your opening professional headline.

It’s perfectly true that LinkedIn has lots of optional sections, and you can even move around the order they appear in your profile (did you know that?). However, it is after all a database.

Because it is used as a database, some of the freedom of expression LinkedIn allows matters very little, at least when it comes to being found. How you decide to code yourself is terribly important. How you can code yourself is limited.

So, you’re a commodity. I could be really harsh at this moment and say “get over it”. That wouldn’t be fair. After all, we are not commodities, are we? I’m not. But we are being led, actually force-marched, into a very narrow way of expressing what we can offer any employer or client.

We can’t stop this process, and it does scare me. The long term consequences of reducing everyone to 120 characters and 50 skills can’t be good. There is a real danger that LinkedIn will, over time, create a bland and homogenised workforce shorn of creative diversity. As there is no place for, no benefit in, truly creative thought outside the restrictions LinkedIn sets it could be lost. We will end up as so many jars of jam.

So much for futurology. What does this mean for you now?

What cannot be changed must be endured. You need a LinkedIn profile that is both found and liked, and you have to accept you are in competition with a vast number of people, possibly millions depending on your job.

That means getting the coding and professional headline right. It means choosing the right photograph, explaining yourself very effectively in the Experience section, and choosing what to put in Education, what to put in Certifications, and what to put in Courses.

It means choosing your message very carefully. This is broadcasting, not narrowcasting. You cannot tailor your message to different audiences. You need to decide very clearly how you wish to be seen. There is no point in designing a “generic” online CV applicable to “everybody”. Recruiters aren’t searching for “anybody”, they are searching for a brief phrase in those 120 characters.

This isn’t a comfortable message and some will reject it for that reason. I’m sorry about that but it can’t be helped. In business we talk endlessly about change, how good it is, make a fetish of it even.

Not all change is good. This may be an example. But we all have to live with it, and learn the best way how.

David Welsh

Ps. I’m also very worried about the long term impact on the careers of women who suffer from stalkers from the dominance of LinkedIn as a recruitment channel. I’ve known talented professional women who are scared to go on for this reason.

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