Wednesday, February 08, 2012

In defense of networking

I've been defending the social value of professional networking over at the anagorism blog, and wanted to make a comment here. The argument (as I understand it) is about how much of a role direct social interactions should play in the establishment of economic relationships, and how much this match-making process can be formalized.

My belief is that there are situations where formalization (e.g. credentials, match-making services) can be useful, but that such situations should be viewed as the exception rather than the rule. Rather, in my vision of a "good society", most relationships (including economic relationships) would be established by networking (e.g. recommendations from trusted sources). I view this as the contrast between a mass-society on one hand, and a personal society on the other. In one society, humans are commodities to be fit into predefined categories by managers, while in the other society, humans define their own needs and pursue these needs with their friends and trusted colleagues.

There are all types of problems with the formalized society, ranging from its inability to innovate to the problem of establishing universal trust in the managers. Granted, the network society can have its own problems -- two of them being wasteful competition and nepotism. I won't address the former, because I don't think it is really solved by formalization. While the later (nepotism) isn't solved by formalization either, the anagorist position provides a clear challenge for finding ways to minimize it in a network society.

The main way to accomplish this is to identify socially privileged networks (e.g. government, academia), and assure that they have some sort of open access point by which outsiders can gain access. In academia, there is a semi-formalized admission process for university, after which students can approach professors and try to develop relationships. I am usually up for establishing new access points, but am opposed to proposals that would formalize the entire system from top to bottom.

The thing that really bugs me about anti-networking critiques is that they build on the corporatist assumption that jobs are something that a deity-like employer creates, and then bestows upon an imbecile worker. In the world I live in, and the wold I want to live in, the worker plays an equal role in creating the job. I think this is undeniably true in an abstract sense (supply and demand together determine the quantity produced), but I also see it in the individual hiring decisions of managers. Managers do not necessarily decide to hire a person and then go seeking a person to fill that slot -- often they hire employees opportunistically; it is only after a prospective employee approaches them and says "here I am, here's what I can do" that the employer decides to take on the project that the employee can work on. There are a lot of pieces that have to come together to make a project work, and it takes efforts to bring them together. If you can bring your skills to someone who has the complementary pieces already, you can make things happen.


Anonymous said...

"Anagorism, of course, seeks an alternative to property and markets, not just to employers and employees. How to implement an alternative to market employment? One tool I envision is One Big Database for matching people to 'jobs'"

I don't mean to be cruel, but I can imagine that quote being an opening line to a Terry Gilliam movie that ironically revels in an inance inefficiency of central authority qua central authority that depicts a society where everyone's job would be to try to maintain the "one big database for matching people to jobs" in order to maintain the one big database to match people to jobs for maintaining the one big database.

Anonymous said...

I can imagine that, too, but it's by no means the only outcome I can imagine. What I had in mind was Ursula LeGuin's notion of "Divlab," which admittedly has problems of its own. In any case, I would suggest such a database for decision support, not decision delegation. At this point in history, One Big Database seems somehow more feasible than One Big Union, which, as far as I'm concerned, is a legitimately anarchist ambition. And of course it would be a distributed database. Not sure whether it has to be high maintenance. Not even sure it has to be a database. Just successful promotion (I know, a tall order) of the norm that a legitimate posting is, well, posted.

Ricketson said...

Note: This comment by anagory was mysteriously deleted from Blogger, but had been sent to my email. It was posted prior to the first comment by "rulingclass".

I'd include commerce with government and academia as privileged networks. Even today, in our partially privatized and deregulated status quo, I think it's safe to say someone who hasn't found an "entry point" to the business world has much bigger problems in life than someone who can't find their way into the academy. Civil service jobs are a rapidly shrinking sector and already largely irrelevant to the younger generation's prospects, with the exception of some high-end professional roles. If anything it is in the worlds of private sector employment and the increasingly requisite "self employment" where there's a screaming need for a publicly known and locatable access point.

What I'm asking for I think of not so much as formalization as open auditions. Right wingers often advocate a sub-minimum-wage 'training wage' for workers in the first 90 days of employment, assuming their role can be called 'trainee.' I oppose this, if for no other reason, because it's a right wing idea (I'm always quick to admit my tribal tendencies) but I'd be open for compromise if participation in trainee positions (or even unpaid internships) were non-competitive, i.e. unlike with "actual paid employment" there are no social filters such as having the connections to have the inside line on the very existence of the opportunity, the job interview where you're judged on everything from the steeliness of your gaze to the firmness of your handshake, and of course the credit checks that serve no purpose (certainly outside accountancy and some very closely related disciplines) I can identify other than discriminatory intent. Let placement in the field be the field of battle in which people compete over the dignity of being contributing members of society.

Obviously you are entirely at peace with, and even something of a cheerleader for, professional networking. Without necessarily making a "request" for a blog post, I'm nevertheless curious. What's your overall attitude about salescrittership? FWIW, I use the term 'salescrittership' because not only is it more gender inclusive than 'salesmanship,' but also more species inclusive. Feel free to use your own terminology if turned off by PC-ness and the like. IMNSHO, sales, marketing and advertising are purely parasitic activities.

Ricketson said...

On the topic of "privileged networks":

First, I saw that anagory has another post about privileged networks on her blog.

I agree that government and academia are not the only privileged networks, and not even necessarily the most relevant privileged networks for most people. I'm ambivalent about whether high connectivity itself should be considered privilege, or whether it is simply the result of individuals doing their own thing -- pursuing their various values and following their own proclivities.

The point where a network becomes privileged is when its members get respect and resources due to the perception that they are providing a public good. It's possible that some networks could be considered privileged even if their members never claimed to be anything other than selfish; here, I'm thinking of the "network effect" that sustains some technology companies (such as Microsoft and Facebook). I hesistate to treat these as the same as "public good" networks, because I believe that these private network privileges should simply be abolished, and that these privileges only continue with the tacit agreement of their fringe (i.e. non-privileged) members (e.g. the consumers who use Windows and Facebook). If people want to be peasants, there's not much to do about it until they change their attitudes.

Anyway, here are some other privileged "public goods" networks. The Intellectual Property Industry is the prime example, since their privilege is explicitly spelled out in the US Constitution -- they are given temporary monopolies in exchange for making progress in art and technology. Another major privileged network is finance -- ranging from the FDIC support for personal savings accounts, to the federal loan guarantees and tax write-offs for mortgages. These people have been exploiting their privilege as though it were simply their own creation.

Anagory brings up the concept of "noblesse oblige". This seems to be out of style, but I think it's a good principle for people in privileged networks to observe. If you want to keep your privilege, you have to convince everyone else that they benefit from it. You have to make sure that you (and your colleagues) are living up to their expectations of integrity, and constantly be seeking to identify and eliminate any failure to share the benefits of your work with the general public.

Ricketson said...


I agree that "salescrittership" can be an opportunity for parasites to suck our blood. However, there is also a big chunk of sales that is productive -- providing information about opportunities, facilitating communication between suppliers and consumers, finding good matches, handling the logistical stuff involved in making deals work, and probably much more.

But then there's all the other stuff that is manipulative and parasitic. These efforts have provided a good chunk of the livelihood to many people -- ranging from the street huckster, to the stereotypical used-car salesman, up to the millionaire CEOs of advertising firms (and one more -- politicians). These scum have mastered the arts of providing false information (i.e. misleading statistics), inflating fears about legal requirements and social expectations (i.e. "you'll be ostracized if you don't do it"), providing misleading price signals, and just rushing people to make decisions without allowing them to consider their options.

I don't see any systemic way to deal with this behavior. As far as I can see, the only thing we can do is educate ourselves about these tactics, and be willing to call out people who use them, and give the the label of "scum". It's more of an educational and cultural thing, than of finding some system that automatically neuters these tactics.

Ricketson said...

Open auditions:

Is this better accomplished through a broad systemic solution (a database system) or through a number of focused initiatives (and personal effort) to combat specific problems and help specific groups.

For instance, Goodwill industries focuses on providing work experience to people who are often excluded. There are also plenty of charities that try to get handicapped people to work. There are internship programs (which may be somewhat abusive), and all types of trainee programs. It can be hard to keep up with all the failures of bringing people into the system, but establishing a society-wide solution is incredibly difficult.

Anonymous said...

Advertising does indeed contain information. I would say that this is more than canceled out by the amount of noise it contains. That fact that advertising is a decidedly repetitive information source is another value-subtracted feature. The fact that advertising itself is used as a value-subtracted feature for other products, such as the trialware versions of Spamdroid apps, is another argument for tallying up advertising in the value chain as a negative number.