Badges? We Don’t Need No LinkedIn Badges

The son of a Texan friend of mine decided earlier this year not to go to college, as someone like him would surely have done a few years ago. Instead he dropped out of high school and went off to interview potential employers in San Francisco. A talented programmer, he accepted one of a number of job offers, turning down Google in the process, and is already hard at work.

To me this means that he has, in essence, made the calculation that the use of social networks will replace the “badges” that my generation valued to determine reputation. Having spurned Eric Schmidt’s advice from SXSW that everyone should go to college, he has begun to stockpile the social capital that will power the post-industrial revolution. He has opted for the social network over the fraternity as the basis for future advancement, and I hardly think he will be the last to do so.

He is bypassing the “hack” of using badges as a substitute for more valuable and accurate information that used to be too expensive to gather. A college degree is a hack? Yes. At an “Unconference” my colleagues and I hosted in Palo Alto last year, Sam Lessin, the Head of the Identity Product Group at Facebook, talked about the way in which human societies evolved trust networks to increase efficiency by connecting with more trading partners and by capturing more information about those partners over time. Money became a key element of these trust networks because it was cheaper to trust the money than the credit of a counterparty beyond your clan, village, or tribe. In time, the networks grew, and it became cheaper to trust other intermediaries too, rather than gather and collect and store the information about the trading partners.

Sam introduced me to a useful way of thinking about these intermediaries, what he called social “hacks.” Shortcuts. Workarounds. Approximations. These hacks are things like badges, diplomas, dress codes, and, as it happens, credit ratings. However, because of what he called the “superpower” all of us have now gained – the ability to instantly communicate with anyone else on Earth – we will no longer be needing those hacks.

This way of looking at the existing business models around identity (that is, as being hacks in response to incomplete authentication, attributes and reputation data) provides a good way of understanding the logic of what my acquaintance’s son has done.

As social capital (the result of the computations across the social graph) becomes accessible and useable, the hacks will fade. A college degree will be worth less than it is now. Using hacks instead of real data is just not good enough in a connected world. Google was famous for its rigorous hiring criteria, but when its analysts looked at “tens of thousands” of interview reports and attempted to correlate them with employee performance, they found “zero” relationship. The company’s infamous interview brainteasers turned out not to predict anything. Even more interesting: Nor did school grade and test scores. As job performance data racks up, the proportion of Google employees with college degrees has decreased over time. It’s a development that Rory Sutherland, the Vice Chairman of Ogilvy & Mather UK echoed when he recently wrote that he was unable to find any evidence that “recruits with first-class degrees turn into better employees than those with thirds (if anything the correlation operates in reverse).”

You can see exactly where this headed if you think about the way that we already use LinkedIn, Twitter and Quora. In the old world, I would use the social hack of finding out which university your degree came from as a sort of proxy for things I wanted to know about you if I was recruiting. But I no longer need to do that because from the social I can find out if you are smart, a hard worker, a team player, an expert on the endochronic properties of resublimated thiotimoline or whatever. So there’s less premium for your learning, say, biochemistry at Harvard rather than Swindon Polytechnic: as long as you know the biochemistry, my hiring decision will be tied to your social graph, not the hack of institutional badges.

It is happening now because the powerful combination of the mobile phone, the social graph, and new authentication technologies is reducing the cost of using social capital effectively at a transaction level. Hacks such as high-school diplomas and glossy CVs are being replaced by social capital because the social graph is a more efficient form of the kind of memory we need to make transactions work.

Personally, I still think there is something to Eric Schmidt’s advice. I didn’t go to college only to learn about Physics, but to be socialized. I found out about politics and arguing, about learning and art, about curiosity and community. What I suspect, therefore, is that the college degree is not about to disappear but about to transform. Maybe two years rather than three or four will be sufficient for a great many people across a great many disciplines. I’ll still want a doctor who went to medical school, but perhaps I’ll want a programmer from the school of LinkedIn. Most of the working world will fall somewhere in between.

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