Do Jobs Spread Virally Over Social Networks?

When the scientific study hit the wires establishing that obesity spreads virally across large “social networks,” I figured that science was simply appropriating a popular cyberspace term.

After all, if obesity could spread across Facebook, or MySpace, science would have a larger problem on its hands than excessive girth. Are my contacts on Facebook really that susceptible to my suggestions? If so, I have a get-rich-slowly scheme to sell them.

Still, it’s obvious that some news and ideas spread virally over the Net; think about how many times you have spammed your friends or associates with jokes, links to articles, blog posts or videos. Before there was e-mail there were fax machines and (lawyer) jokes made the rounds pretty quickly, too.

Are there limits to this principle? For instance, does news about job vacancies spread virally over the Net? If I were fired from my job I imagine that word would spread quickly by voice, IM or e-mail between my friends and colleagues. But what if it’s simply “news” about a job opening in my company?

I might not spread that news unless I knew someone seeking that information. By contrast every one of my friends is constantly looking for a laugh (it’s a pre-requisite).

In this sense, maybe job vacancies are a bit different than jokes. And maybe that’s because there’s so much noise in the job world – job ads are always in our face – on search engines, e-mail advertising, website homepages, and, of course, on job boards, too.

Yet, here’s how job openings move virally on social networks:

  • When you’re seeking work, you put out feelers, especially among your network of contacts, and if they hear about an opportunity they notify you.
  • You can be a passive job candidate – and if there is compelling information about you in your social networking profile, a recruiter might find it and contact you. (Odds are multiple ones will.)
  • For those more actively seeking employment, on social networks you can send appeals to your contact list’s contacts – an exponentially larger universe.

Rohit Bhargava, who leads the interactive marketing team at Ogilvy Public Relations in Washington DC, is an avid blogger and an adept social networker. He believes that social networking is making it possible for job searches to become viral. “It used to be that you would send an email to everyone you knew and they might send it to somebody else,” says Bhargava. On Linked-in, for example, Bhargava says you can “very easily reach [your contact's] second tier of network,” meaning friends of friends.

Although at times it may seem that there’s a bright line separating social networks in the ‘real world’ from those in cyberspace, the truth is much blurrier than it appears. Job searches fall into the category of ideas that can spread virally. Especially if you lose a job and everyone hears that you’re a free agent – that’s the tipping point.

Here’s something for social scientists to puzzle over: one of my real-life friends (a Linked-in connection) just became CEO of a company. Does a rising social connection lift all of his or her network contacts – or only the suggestible ones?