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The amount of virtual spam I get from LinkedIn seems to be steadily increasing, to the point where, frankly, I can usually ignore the majority of email that has its name on the From: line. But maybe a month or two ago I suddenly started seeing a slew of LinkedIn recommendations from friends and colleagues in my inbox. I couldn’t just roll my eyes and delete these: I know from experience that personalised recommendations can take ages to put together. Submitting these without even being asked is one of the nicest things a friend or colleague can do.

But wait: These emails weren’t about LinkedIn recommendations, they were about “endorsements”. Hmmm, what’s an endorsement? Well, it turns out that if you pull up someone’s LinkedIn profile, you’re asked whether you want to endorse that person for any of the skills that he or she has claimed to have expertise in — Excel, say, or Project Management, or Product Development. You choose some number of items from the person’s list, click the “Endorse” button, and that’s it. Hardly as meaningful as 15 minutes spent crafting a personalised review, but it’s the thought that counts, I guess. If someone I’ve worked with is willing to voluntarily attest that I’m an expert in Trading Systems, that certainly means something.

Except when it doesn’t. One day I got an email informing me that my friend Tim, a music journalist, had endorsed me for Equity Derivatives, which I’ve worked with extensively in my finance job. The problem: There’s no way Tim has any idea what an equity derivative is. I think I can visualise exactly what happened. I’d made a minor change to my profile, so the next time Tim signed on to LinkedIn he saw the news that my profile had been updated. When he clicked on the link to view the change, he was asked if he’d like to “endorse” me, and being a good friend he wasn’t going to say no. He was presented with the more or less random list of “skills” I’d thrown together on the site, he picked one that sounded good, and he clicked the big yellow button. This was kind of him, no question, but what did it mean?

To be honest, I’ve often wondered what even real, paragraph-long recommendations, the kind that people write for each other on LinkedIn, are ultimately worth. How many potential employers take these into account when screening candidates? A person used as a reference, simply by virtue of being on a candidate’s list to begin with, can be counted on to give that candidate a glowing review 99 times out of 100. So how meaningful is it when the recommendation — sorry, endorsement — was obtained by the clicking of a couple of widgets? What does this sort of testimonial say, apart from the fact that the reference knows the candidate well enough to tick an “approve” box — especially if he or she wasn’t qualified to make that judgment?

It seems to me that this is another example of the weed-like growth of “like” and “favorite” culture, where taking the time to submit something, or someone, to careful analysis has been replaced by pushing a YES button. Certainly not every event requires a 500-word essay: Saying “Congratulations!” or “Good luck!” when a friend announces that she’s just given birth is perfectly reasonable. But a thumbs-up is not the answer to every question in the world either. Is the proliferation of likes a sign of grade deflation, where what once required a typed letter or a phone call now only needs a single mouse-click? If so, there’s plenty of counter-evidence, as in the internet tendency to use “BEST. TWEET. EVER.” to mean “a mildly amusing tweet.” (“Good” in this case is about the most dismal rating imaginable.) On eBay, awash with grades like AAAAAAAAAAA++++++++++++, anything less than that translates to something like “Avoid doing business with this person at all costs!”

No, the increasingly common option to voice complex opinions via a checkbox is more an indication of—not necessarily laziness, but limited time. Think of a paragraph-long response to some question as the “write” equivalent of a “longread,” a luxury you can only indulge in when you have a three-day weekend or you’ve finished your work for the day a couple of hours early. Still, there are some assertions that absolutely demand something more nuanced than a thumbs-up. If a friend posts a newspaper article to Facebook about a government minister who’s been caught embezzling millions, does a like mean “I like it when government ministers embezzle millions,” or does it mean “I like it when government ministers who’ve embezzled millions are exposed in newspaper articles”? A “dislike” button in this case would merely pose the same conundrum in reverse. Binary choices can only convey so much information.

In the case of a LinkedIn endorsement, there’s no mystery about what a binary answer means — or actually, there’s a slight mystery: Are you saying that I’m a brilliant worker and you have no doubt that I’d be able to handle equity derivatives, whatever they are, effortlessly? Or are you saying that you’ve seen me work with equity derivatives and you can vouch for the fact that I know everything there is to know about them? In this case, a more detailed answer than “Yes” would go a long way toward dodging this kind of ambiguity. There’s still the problem of whether the person is getting a free pass because the reviewer is a good friend, but at least the response contains some parseable information.

The truth is, likes on Facebook and favorites on Twitter are often nothing more than votes “for” the original poster, rather than comments on the post. To a large extent, social networks (especially Facebook) are about creating and reinforcing friendships rather than getting into deep philosophical discussions, regardless of how things look on the surface. And that’s usually fine. But what purpose does it serve for hundreds of people to be giving one another content-free likes on a career site, where no rational employer will place any value on them? In this case, maybe it’s not the thought that counts. ®

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