LinkedIn makes people a bad way

Where did LinkedIn go wrong?

The data scientists at LinkedIn wanted to ask a simple question: are you more likely to receive a job offer through a closer or a more distant connection?  The answer turns out to be counterintuitive — people with weaker social connections have higher job mobility.  

This correlation between weaker ties and job mobility has significant implications for how professionals use LinkedIn (should you connect with a lot of people you barely know or a smaller group of people you know well?) and how people search for jobs — on every social media site.

LinkedIn states that it will be adjusting some of the services' features based on the results of this research.  Further, if the results of this study hold outside the job market — and they are likely to — the implications are much more significant than the job market.

The criticism of LinkedIn's study has been swift and pointed.  The most significant concern expressed by data scientists, privacy experts, and many others is that the company did not ask for users' consent before using them as subjects of their large-scale A/B test.

Why didn't LinkedIn ask for consent?  Probably because the people there never (honestly) thought about it.  Given that the results are designed to help their users make better decisions, and everyone wants to make better decisions, who would object?

This attitude toward consent is a pointer to the more significant problem infecting virtually every social media service.  Consent assumes that each user — a person is an autonomous agent who is able, given information, to make rational decisions.

Silicon Valley, and most of the world's elite, no longer believe that this is true.

The modern view of the person is "thin" — an easily manipulated fast thinking process makes most decisions.  While there is a slower thinking process, social media flatten all users into a decision-making machine influenced by the architecture of the choices presented.

In this quasi-deterministic worldview (this libertarian paternalism), asking for consent seems redundant.  After all, LinkedIn could have structured the choice to ensure that almost every user participated.

This belief in the flattened, thin person has crept into every sphere of our lives.

While consent is the primary consideration for all sexual encounters, consent is reduced to a thin "yes or no" related to the sexual act.  You cannot choose to whom you are attracted.  You can only choose whether you want this physical interaction at this moment.

The thin person also makes an appearance in the political realm.  We must guard against disinformation because people will not, and cannot, help but be influenced by what they see and hear.  The person becomes a thin reflection of the information he is fed by an algorithm — an algorithm manipulated by the most technically advanced candidate (not always the elite's choice).

When the algorithm works the right way, it is democracy and progress.  When the algorithm works the wrong way, the result is populist fascism.  If each person is just a product of the choices he is presented with, there is no middle ground.

The Jewish and Christian scriptures know about this "thin person" who acts on impulse or "fast thinking."  Being a thin person is to be a child, "tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind" (Ephesians 4:14).  In the classical view, the job of the person is to move beyond this reliance on "fast thinking," developing slow thinking skills by gaining and applying knowledge, developing wisdom, and becoming virtuous.

The rejection (or rather redefining) of virtue and the acceptance of the "thin person" are among the factors playing into the deep divisions, rapid changes in social sentiment, and lack of seriousness in our culture.

Social media accentuate this trend toward the thin person.

Social media say, "Don't worry about making new friends; we will find your new friends for you."  Social media say, "Don't worry about finding a good way to that coffee shop; we will find the best path for you."  Social media say, "don't worry about how to make social connections or find your next job; we will do the research and set things up so you succeed without needing to think about it."

We are not using all these tools to allow our slow thinking (what would have been called our virtuous selves) to structure decisions, so we make the right decision in the heat of the moment.  We are just turning our virtue over to others so they can be virtuous in our stead.

Image via Pxhere.

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