When does social media backscratching currency lose its value?

Photo Credit: Creative Commons Crazytales562

Remember when LinkedIn started “Recommendations”? Recommendations had and have powerful implications. In fact, rather than check a person’s references, many recruiters just review recommendations as a PRE-QUALIFIER for potential jobs. One reason Recommendations on LinkedIn hold some influence is that its often easy to see the source of a recommendation particularly if the two people concerned shared a common employer, which gives context and weight to a recommendation. This works especially well for those looking for a job and recruiters. For independent consultants, or small business LinkedIn is still useful, but in different ways.

But “Recommendations” can be challenging. I clearly remember the first time that I was asked to give someone a “Recommendation” for whom I wasn’t comfortable giving one. It was awkward and difficult, not only because I liked the person, but I didn’t feel as though I could write a professional recommendation for a variety of reasons. But even that many years ago before Twitter, I was aware of the “I scratch your back, you scratch mine” nature of social media. However, I had to draw the line and I felt like I’d be doing a disservice to others I’d written recommendations for if I wrote one that wasn’t completely honest. None the less, it was an uncomfortable situation.

Move forward to today: If we’re using social media to its fullest potential, we can create and sustain engaged and relevant relationships online. To have relationships, it usually helps to have manners.  For example, I’ve written  that I am proponent of following those who follow you on Twitter.  I really see very little reason NOT TO.  I don’t necessarily feel that way about Facebook, although I’ve been pretty liberal in my own case.  But I know people who just aren’t comfortable blending the professional and the personal and that’s OK  too. But I’ve written many, many posts here about the “manners” of social media, I usually say that “everything you need to know about social media you learned in Kindergarten.” I stand by those posts and the fact that we can all benefit by raising the bar on social media manners. But it IS a fine line between manners and “social media climbing” and let me be clear: I believe that if you don’t feel comfortable writing an endorsement/recommendation for someone, you shouldn’t. If you don’t feel like following a particular person for whatever reason, that too remains your right. However, there is an undeniable culture of “backscratching” on social media platforms.

But the recent emergence of “endorsement” type sites including Namesake and Connect.me, I’ve become challenged and conflicted.  I’ve been participating in these sites quite a bit over the last couple of weeks. I’ve given and received a variety of endorsements. Most of my endorsements have been from those who either have worked with me or can at least speak to my reputation; and I’ve returned the favor for those for whom I can say the same. In other words, the endorsements have been genuine. Yet, I have this sinking feeling that as these sites grow, there will be an inevitable flow of “social media climbers”. When this happens  “Endorsements” will be more about how many a person has versus the quality of said endorsements or even who gave the endorsements.  Interestingly, in this interview last fall, the founders of Namesake say they want to become the Linked in for the “Self Employed”  presumably to help the self employed connect with one another and to give further credibility to self employed people who may or may not use LinkedIn (because they aren’t searching for a “job”). This would suggest that endorsements would become an integral (and protected) part of the network.  They also said that they want to “build out the expertise graph” as opposed to the social graph. There is definitely room for this model, in fact, I personally dig it.  But Namesake’s recent blog post on the topic about differentiations of Namesake vs. other social platforms (Quora, LinkedIn, Twitter) says essentially that their purpose is to create topic based conversations in real time, with those you may or may not know. This is slightly different from being the “LinkedIn of the Self Employed” So, have they changed direction or lost focus? I don’t know. Right now, according to the participants in a Namesake conversation I started on this topic, there are a number of values to endorsements, including being able to search in a particular topic and “weight” a person’s opinion on a subject based on their expertise. But won’t it be fun to search on conversations when certain topics become over run with “experts”, not to mention the fact that the categories are filled with misspelling and duplicates. And to what of the quality vs. quantity of endorsements?

From a professional branding standpoint, if this is to be a site that helps small business owners connect with one another, and help potential clients evaluate potential vendors, then how do we VALUE the endorsements others have? How do we sift through the endorsements people received as a “back scratch” as opposed to the genuine endorsements by those who know?  Users on Namesake are just starting to address this challenge.  I agree with the sentiment that there should be weighting involved in valuation of endorsements on a site like Namesake, but I’m thinking the weighting should be tied to some kind of social graph that (attempts) to verify the strength of the relationship.  Particularly as the site grows and there is an inherent threat to the quality of endorsements. But Namesake is a (relatively) new website, so if technology and social media have taught us anything, its only a matter of (short) time before it changes and/or evolves.

Connect.me is actually still in beta, so we don’t fully know how they plan to utilize or empower their users with the endorsements that they are actively and currently giving.  To date, they haven’t been exactly transparent about their business model or intentions to either the media or those who have signed up. Their blog is geared toward the technical side of their business, rather than engaging potential users and community. They aren’t really off and running on the transparency or social side of things in my book. However, what I do like about Connect.me is that endorsers can choose their OWN descriptions of a person and they can include professional and personal attributes, so if you don’t know a person’s work authority, but you DO think they have particular individual characteristics (generosity, responsibility, etc.)  you can say that as opposed to being forced to endorse someone on a category you may or may not feel comfortable endorsing. Again, however, its a very open concept and how we will address the “back scratching” urge to create value in the endorsements? We have yet to see.

For me,  it comes down to this: for these sites and others like them that are sure to follow,  either the site communities or the sites themselves will have to develop ways to create or maintain value for endorsements. Because collecting endorsements just for the sake of having endorsements is as valuable as collecting Twitter followers for the sake of increasing your numbers. Ultimately, these actions devalue the potential and power of the idea behind the very idea of influence. Endorsement sites are ultimately another way to help social media users navigate the waters by identifying influencers; they work differently than Klout and Peer Index, and thus provide different types of information. Ultimately, having several different resources to identify influencers is good for the socially networked world, so long as there is value in the endorsements.

Do you agree with my concerns about these sites? Are the endorsements valuable for you to receive, give or in helping you navigate the particular site offering endorsements?