Social media shows potential to mitigate unemployment: but can it deliver?

Can social media and the Internet transform workers into networkers and collaborators rather than victims of economic challenges? Progress has been tepid, and the jury is still out.

During the onset of the recession a couple of years back, I speculated in a post at that time that we were  about to test the boundaries of a "Recession 2.0," in which many unemployed or worried workers would be empowered -- not cowered, as has been the case in recessions gone past -- to better connect and communicate with the world to identify new opportunities. Thanks to social media and the Internet, this time around, we'd be a society of networkers and collaborators, not victims, of economic challenges.

Unemployment line in the 1930s: could the Internet have made a difference for these people?

As I put it at the time, this would be the first downturn of the social networking era, with the hopeful possibility that the unemployed could see a LIFT (Linked In, Facebook and Twitter) in their quest for new and better opportunities.

Coming out the other end of the economic downturn, when millions are still unemployed or underemployed, the results have been mixed in terms of the ability of social media and the Internet to deliver. There are plenty of stories in the media about people struggling to find jobs and emailing hundreds of resumes to no avail.

And, perhaps surprisingly, while many, if not most, of the unemployed have found their way online in some form or another, there has been little of an organized effort to help them connect and collaborate. As

Sifry points to one effort, called U3 (U-Cubed), which seeks to build an empowered Web community through geometric growth via online "cubes" of six individuals. And the blog reports getting more than 100,000 comments in a discussion about passage of the unemployment benefits extension bill. People are making their voices heard. But is this enough to make a significant impact in empowering people?  Sifry says the Internet can make a difference, and puts it this way:

"The lesson of what seems to be happening organically around sites like OpenCongress and WashingtonWatch is that even without conscious planning, hubs of likeminded individuals will find each other online and coalesce, albeit poorly and with little strong coordination, in ways that help each other get what they need. Now, imagine if we listened carefully to these signals, invented some better tools for group collaboration, set them up to do well in organic search, and then got out of the way."

The online economy offers great potential as an opportunity engine for those being displaced as a result of economic changes. Let's face it, even with the most robust or robust economic recoveries, massive shifts would still be seen in skills requirements, global markets, and wealth creation.

The ability to keep unemployed and underemployed connected and potentially organized are one aspect of how social media and the Internet can help people through downturns, but not the only option.  Consider these areas of opportunity, which occur under the radar of government unemployment statistics:

As an informal but pervasive recruiting and employment tool: An article published last year in The New York Times describes how one laid-off engineer turned to Facebook and LinkedIn, and soon found himself to be the object of a talent search by a hiring company. For the engineer, the connection meant getting back to work and off the unemployment rolls. For the company, social networking is providing a valuable talent recruiting resource. “More personal pages, profiles and social networks are serving as fodder for companies looking to fill jobs,” the report states. To mine its employees’ social networking contacts for potential hires, a business can pay for services from companies like Appirio or Jobvite.”

As an entrepreneurial resource: Thanks to social networking and cloud computing, a lot of laid-off or frustrated professionals now have access to computing and information resources unheard of even a few years ago. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, for one, calls this the rise of the "Do-It-Yourself Economy," driven by a mass diffusion of low-cost, high-powered innovation technologies -- from hand-held computers to Web sites that offer any imaginable service -- plus cheap connectivity. They are transforming how business is done."

As an economic boost for distressed communities or regions: Thanks to the Internet and social networking, residents of communities falling out of the mainstream of economic activity -- because of plant closings, for example -- have access to the same information and educational opportunities as those in thriving areas.

These are ways the connected economy has the potential to help deliver greater opportunities to workers, professionals and communities across the divide. As recent employment data suggests, however, this is still a new frontier, and there's plenty of work that needs to be done.

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