Can Facebook Really Replace Employment Firms?

A Kick In the Career: What happened to face-to-face networking? In this week's column, humorist and career expert Tom Stern wonders whether social networking is really conducive to launching one's career.

Remember when the only thing chaining you to your computer was e-mail? Oh, how I long for those days, the way a caveman must have gazed wistfully at the new invention called the wheel while grunting unintelligibly about how much simpler things were when his only concern was clubbing things to death within a quarter-mile radius of his yurt. Ever since DSL, it's been possible to quickly access such pertinent information as a fictional schematic for the architectural layout of Hogwarts or a YouTube clip of Merv Griffin singing "Dancing Queen." Indeed, we have had fewer and fewer reasons to venture beyond the computer desk we ordered online from Ikea, you know the one that we are expected to assemble ourselves with nothing but the God-forsaken Allen wrench that came in the box.

All by way of saying the old paradigms are dying out and the Internet is now the place to be for just about everything. Record stores are now gone because we download music. Professional movie critics have been replaced by pre-pubescent bloggers whose idea of a classic remake is Will Ferrell starring in "Gone With My Wind." Personally I don't want to see a three-hour film about a southern gentleman who's inured to his own flatulence, although it would certainly give "frankly, Scarlett, I don't give a damn" a whole new meaning and might finally explain how Atlanta caught fire. And potential employers are, so they tell us, everywhere in cyberspace, looking to connect with you and your dynamic skills by checking out your profile on LinkedIn, Twitter, Friendster, Facebook, LinkFace, MyFace, YourFace, InYourFace or whatever the latest "make all your personal information available to a phalanx of potential serial mutilators" site is going by these days. The pressure is on for us all to have visibility in the social networking community. I don't know about you, but the idea that there is someone out there waiting to find me sounds a lot more like something out of "Seven" than a way to enhance my job search. Coming home to find the equivalent of, say, Gwyneth Paltrow's head bubble wrapped in a FedEx box would really make me question the recruiting practices of my potential employer.

What ever happened to human contact and the kind of gut instinct first impressions that only come from true face time? Sure, there are upsides to cyber-connections. You save postage by not having to mail out hundreds of résumés. You save on gas by not having to drive to dozens of interviews, but the downside is you could spend three weeks on LinkedIn networking with the CEO of a startup, only to find out that his headquarters is a cardboard box and he just changed the name of his company to "Homeless Depot." (Plus the stock-option, base salary, sign-on bonus package he offered you was actually a scratch-and-sniff tear-out from Mademoiselle that he triumphantly excavated from a recent dumpster dive.)

In a world of regression analysis and market segmentation aren't the number of these sites only a reflection of the growing need in our culture to find an idiosyncratic group to which each of us can belong? It seems that to remain competitive, we feel we must scour through every possible niche group, not sure where our big break will come from. You never know whom you'll meet at that Web page where they are constantly updating a database of out of work machinists who also have degrees in animal husbandry. I found one that had a surprising critical mass, especially given its stringent requirements. It's for people with degrees in business administration, who have a profound fear of banjos and are racially open-minded yet lactose-intolerant. A friend of mine has even started up a 12-step program online for compulsive typists. Unfortunately, reading some of their Instant Messages can take up to three days.

What's really at the bottom of this need we have to get on every social networking site there is? The fact is the job market has changed from a place where people stayed at the same company for thirty years and worked within a system to interact with all kinds of different people, to a market where most of us don't hold a job longer than Eddie Murphy's most recent marriage. (I believe they filed for legal separation before they'd even completed their vows.) As a recruiter, I know that most people don't change jobs just to make more money, but also in the quick-fix hope that their next work environment will contain fewer challenging interpersonal dynamics. So, which came first, the Internet chicken or the shirking-human-contact egg? It's true that the volume of our communication has quadrupled at least, but what does that really mean if we rarely have to look people in the eye? Perhaps we've ceased to develop conflict resolution skills at all. Now if we have an unresolved professional relationship, we can just cover our hostility by adding a smiley-face icon to any statement we make online. This makes it easier to cover the fact that we've had a bloodied voodoo doll of our co-worker in a desk drawer since Y2K.

Oh, well, it's easy to be hard on ourselves for thinking that the magical Internet is going to take care of everything for us, but all we're really doing is using a modern tool to do what we've always done: try to get to the next level. And there's nothing wrong with that. What I'm worried about, though, is that this compulsion to use the Internet to constantly seek something better will spill over into our personal lives. If that happens, what is to prevent our loved ones from trying to alter the chain of command every few years with a little familial outsourcing? Then again, maybe I'm just being paranoid. Although last week I definitely lost points when during my daughter's violin recital I screamed out, "Not again!" and smashed my faulty Bluetooth on the floor, disrupting her solo and embarrassing my wife to no end. My confidence that my apology had smoothed things over dissipated when later at home I walked in on my entire family hunched over the computer Googling "new dad." And my wife mumbling something about needing to reach a customer service consultant in Bangalore.