Friday, December 05, 2008

From search engines to social networking: how people become "known"

Yesterday, as I documented on my “IT job market blog”, I set up a “Linked In” profile, and it leads me to some observations about changes in the fundamental ways that people promote themselves on the Web.

In the late 1990s, say 1997-1999, right after publishing my first book, I found that people would discover my content readily with search engines, even if I did not try to register with the engines. Because my content was static HTML, it loaded quickly and sometimes was found more readily than similar material on corporate sites, obscured by scripts and database repositories.

Since I was living downtown in a socially and politically progressive city (Minneapolis), I easily made the social contacts that I needed to help promote the book and sites, functioning mainly in the “real world.” These contacts included some political activism sources (the Libertarian Party of Minnesota), creative arts (a writers group and a screenwriting workshop, and the local independent film project), the LGBT community (like Pride Alive from the Minnesota AIDS Project), and nearby campuses, where I spoke three times, the first appearance being videotaped and played on a local cable channel.

Circumstances changed when I came back to the DC area in 2003, partly because of family issues. But there was also a major change in the Web as to how content and personal presence were perceived.

Starting around 2004, social networking sites were introduced, and by 2006 people were using them as a major supplement, and often replacement, to physical world social networking. Professional “social networking” sites like Linked In and Ziggs were developed. Employers began to expect that employees and job applicants would have a coherent presence on the web. That ran counter to anonymous activity on the web, or the idea that people would assume multiple identities. In my case, I had a legal name “John W.” but wrote with the nickname “Bill” based on my middle name (“William”). Since I worked as an individual contributor in information technology and wrote about political matters as a “second life”, I could make this work.

Now, it seems different. As noted before, employers are often concerned about “reputation” and professionals in anything are encouraged to manage their online presence carefully. (Yup, there is an application and online workd called “Second Life” nevertheless.) One of the interesting things about Linked In is that it allows relatively little space for content, but encourages not just links but personal contacts and notation of publicly cited awards as well. It communicates the idea that content is encapsulated with the identity or reputation of the content originator.

That suggests a new paradigm for how people become known. Rather than being just found by search engines (and how many pages of links they generate) they are found from an online social network in a hierarchal fashion. This, in the minds of many people, brings back old fashioned ideas of professionalism to the online world.

This sort of style of presentation emphasizes focused expertise and an ability to get clients or generate business. While this is logical in general in the employment world, in recent years (even more so now with the downturn) job markets have become over specialized, with skills that become obsolete. And this current recession is not one we can get out of by selling to each other or manipulating each other. We have to solve real problems.

There’s another irony here, as far as I am concerned. I got into the whole area of web publishing because of my involvement with the “gays in the military” (or “don’t ask don’t tell”) issue back in the 1990s. Yet the whole rationale behind that policy was based on ambiguous concepts like “propensity” and “presumption” rather than fact, rather like our idea of online “reputation” now. In fact, any policy to lift “don’t ask don’t tell” will have to consider online behavior, even “off duty”, as relevant to “reputation” and functioning in a structure demanding unit cohesion and respect for rank and command.

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