Readers of a certain age will recall a period in the early 1980’s when Rubik’s Cube was all the rage (back when people still said things like “all the rage”). For a brief time, it was nearly impossible to go anywhere or do anything without being confronted with some reference to the puzzle or the Hungarian professor who invented it. The item has sold 350 million units to date and is easily the world’s top-selling toy of its kind.
LinkedIn is the largest professional social network on the Internet, currently reporting more than 260 million users worldwide since its launch in 2003. The first tentative steps into the world of business-oriented social media came with a set of expectations for participation, not unlike those dictating one’s professional conduct at an in-person business function. For those who wished to expand their circle of contacts beyond conventional networking channels, the platform was a godsend.
Today, these two seemingly disparate streams have converged. As the lines between business and social networking have become increasingly blurred, the typical LinkedIn user can expect to see at least one puzzle of some sort in their daily feed. On Monday, it’s a mathematical equation with the headline “Solve This If U R a Genius” affixed to the top. On Wednesday it might be a word search puzzle, inviting us to join the 2,703 commenters who previously discovered the inspirational message hidden within. Some puzzles attempt to pry into the psychological makeup of the user, operating as a sort of abridged version of the Myers-Brigg indicator. Other puzzles attempt to predict what sort of career we should pursue based on our first name.
Although seemingly innocuous fun, the choice to participate in a puzzle on someone’s LinkedIn feed does raise hypothetical questions. Are we naturally conditioned to think better or worse of a co-worker who didn’t know that 7+7/7+7×7-7=50 (or is it 14)? If a prospective employer researches a candidate’s background on LinkedIn, do her chances of landing the job decrease or increase because she located the word “universe” in a word search puzzle? Have our professional standards relaxed to the point where I could bring a Rubik’s Cube to a job interview?*
LinkedIn is now such an accepted component of doing business that we are constantly besieged with articles telling us what behaviors to avoid when using the product. Anything can be considered LinkedIn taboo, from failing to include a profile picture to having not enough (or too many) personal recommendations. Still, there is little in the way of journalistic guidance when it comes to online puzzles. We want to believe (and the research seems to indicate) that a fun working environment is a more productive one. Most of us recognize that there’s a time and place for frivolity, however, and a time and place to be serious and get things done.
LinkedIn has experienced its share of backlash in recent years. Some users have cited the platform’s increasing failure to properly qualify prospective connections, a by-product of the “broad and shallow” recruiting model often employed by mass networking agencies. Others have accused LinkedIn advertisers of flooding inboxes with spam messages, saying the platform offers too little value for the cognitive investment. Kendra Eash of the New Yorker recently published a column of honest LinkedIn recommendations which, like all satire, hits just close enough to home to be brilliant:
“How can I sum up Judy in just one paragraph? I can’t, because she will probably rewrite it. A brilliant micromanager and leader of team anxiety, she never met a project she didn’t want to take over. Judy has inspired thousands of eye rolls during her time here, and anybody that’s going to work with her deserves to be warned in advance.”
LinkedIn is an easy target because we expect better from a professional networking website. The inclusion of puzzles on our feeds increasingly risks distancing us from our purpose for being there, disguising digital pablum as meaningful engagement. That said, the viral attraction of puzzles might have business value as a mechanism for screening talent. Already, headhunters have begun posting arithmetic problems (“If you can solve this, I might be interested in hiring you”) as a way to thin the field of prospective job candidates.
This is where things get uncomfortable: the realization that important, real-world decisions might be made on the basis of someone’s performance on a simple (almost stupid), diversionary task. It’s akin to hiring a finance manager because they can beat your top salesperson at Monopoly. How long before such tactics of dubious intention are widely repurposed by principled organizations, and what effect might this have on the future of business interaction?
*Personal caveat: I solved Rubik’s Cube when I was in sixth grade, but for some reason my clients and employers haven’t been impressed by this achievement.