Monday, April 10, 2006

antisocial software

Extra! Extra! Read all about it! LinkedIn is cash-flow positive. At least that's what Business Week reports. I'd have a hard time believing it, except I suspect Amway is also cash-flow positive and has been for many years.

Don't see the similarity between Amway and LinkedIn? You should. They're both pyramid schemes that use your own social network to good effect. For someone. You know someone who knows someone who knows someone who'll do something for you. Because you're somehow explicitly connected in this great family of man.

The only difference is, there are actual Amway products, weird Soylent-green inspired nutritional supplements and iffy cosmetics. Cleaning fluids that smell funny and don't work quite right. The people at the top of the pyramid know that. They don't say very much about how the L.O.C. surfactants smell; they just say, "Everyone loves clean. Clean says you're in control of your life and your surroundings."

It's about control. If you're linked in, you're in control. It's not like Tupperware: "Hey everybody! It's a party! Plastic containers can be fun! Let's get wild over the storage of leftovers!" In fact, I notice that Tupperware's new line of containers was inspired by the classic alien face-shape. Who wouldn't be excited by that?

Nope. It's not about parties or having a ball with 2 cups of leftovers that can go directly from refrigerator to microwave.

The thing about social networking software like LinkedIn and Classmates.com is that, unlike Amway and Tupperware, they don't fill any particular niche in your life. MySpace and FaceBook are like life, only better. Everyone's out to strut their stuff and talk to people they'd normally socialize with. They flirt. They display photos of themselves in their underwear. They sure as heck don't network. They console, cajole, and wink knowingly. And it seems to work.

There's a reason you left your old job and stopped going to lunch with the people you used to work with: you've moved on. LinkedIn? No. I think I'll opt out. And there's a reason that class reunions are only held every 5 or 10 years. Classmates.com assumes you're interested in getting back in touch with the people you knew in school. But that's really beside the point. It's more like that dreadful reunion one of your friends goaded you to attend: the reason you went is that you got to see firsthand who got fat, who's had cosmetic surgery, who's overdressed (among women, this means "didn't follow the implicit black cocktail dress code"), who came out, who lost their hair, whose drug habit is out of control, and who looks a lot worse than you do, even with their sunglasses on. Seeing pictures of other peoples' kids on Classmates.com? Nah. That'll just remind you how old you are when you realize that the kids look more like the surfers you knew in high school than their parents do.

I confess, I did join Classmates.com once though, for about a half hour.

What happened is this: a girl I went to school with popped up in some other venue, alive. This surprised me greatly, since I'd believed all these years that her abrupt disappearance in tenth grade was a suicide. And it was entirely plausible. She'd already enjoyed a successful career as a child star when she moved to our neighborhood; she'd starred in a Jerry Lewis movie and been up for a Golden Globe. She'd sung duets with Elvis in another movie (although I don't think she was as public about this role at the time; this was Elvis's In the Ghetto period, when he was a joke, not really even competing with Jim Morrison for our hearts and pre-adolescent dollars). Donna was a celebrity among us; we elected her student body president and discussed her doings with barely-concealed awe. She soon fell from grace in one of those normal ways that it's best not to discuss, particularly since I've already demonstrated that I was exceedingly prone to believing salacious rumors in those days. Then she disappeared.

Once her name had popped up last fall, I went to Classmates.com -- sheepishly, I admit -- with the idea that the reference was somehow bogus, that someone was impersonating her or even pretending that she'd shown up in their retail establishment. This many years later, who would know? And much to my satisfaction, there was no sign of her.

In point of fact, I went to a large junior high school and an even larger high school (around 2700 students), and I saw few familiar names at all. One of the odd things about this social software is that it's based on the "small town" assumption. I've worked for several large companies and have gone to large schools; it's not that likely LinkedIn and Classmates are going to connect me with people I remember more than fleetingly. "Oh, yeah," I'd think to myself, "that was the kid who barfed on the floor in social studies." But there'd be no reason I'd want to start a conversation with him now. Watching someone vomit in 7th grade is not the basis for a lifetime bond.

But then, right around Christmas, things got weird. Classmates.com's noxious habit of sending email whenever they'd hooked another sucker, "You have 1 NEW profile at Classmates.com, Catherine," yielded some bizarre fruit. The NEW profile was Donna's and it said, tantalizingly, "hey gang, finally sat down long enough to record m..." Classmates cut it off right there. And I had to join and give them my credit card number so I could look at the last 30 characters of her message, promoting her work on a music CD. Then I was done with Classmates.com and I went through fits of paranoia as I expunged my credit card information from their system, lest I be charged for my little looky-loo.

My little looky-loo. How much use does social software like LinkedIn and Classmates get like mine, brief forays that satisfy intense, but highly transient, curiosity? And how much use is of the Amway sort? I'm told that LinkedIn is used by head hunters to locate fodder for placement.

A friend of a friend is a prospect indeed.

2 Comments:

Blogger Fred Stutzman said...

I am of the opinion that something like LinkedIn is only valuable in those periods of time where you actually need a job - and how valuable it is at that point is also up in the air. We don't really go out of our way socialize around the work relationship, so a site built on the premise of that sort of socialization is...lacking. And its just sort of random to connect with people and say "Hey, I need to use you to get a job!"

The only social network sites that make sense are the ones that integrate purely into our set of needs. Facebook and Myspcace..a big yes. The person who designs the site that connects these upwardly-mobile communities where noone knows each other...that will be a hit. But if you've got to search for use-cases where you feel comfortable using the service...

Anyway, enjoy the blog so far, I've been subscribed for a little while!

4:08 PM  
Blogger Cathy said...

Thanks, Fred.

LinkedIn reminds me of this headhunter who used to work on the same floor as me in a big office building on Wilshire Blvd. We called him Flaky George (to distinguish him from George the Tape Ape, our backup guy) and would pass him a resume whenever we got too discouraged with Tough Shit Corp., our employer.

He never actually placed anyone in a job, but it was an ego-boost to know someone (anyone) else was interested.

My experiences with LinkedIn make me think it's similar. Several people I don't know have asked me for references right after I joined LinkedIn. It's not that I don't know them well; it's that I don't know them at all. Still, because we both worked at Xerox or at Microsoft, they thought that was enough.

Friendster occupies a weird middle ground, since as far as I can tell, it's mostly used for brief liaisons. And that's a use case all its own.

4:06 PM  

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