The long Social Network tail

The most recent NICEC – Journal of the Institute for Career Education and Counselling focussed on Digital Technologies in career education and guidance.

All of the articles discuss how careers practitioners should be utilising the online world to offer a service that blends the best of the digital world with the benefits of more traditional career support.

“Careers workers who are not developing digital career literacy will soon find that they are not developing careers at all.”

The articles are an illuminating mix of career theory and real world examples of practitioners incorporating digital technologies into their work. Reading the issue lead me to mull over just what sort of clients careers workers will be dealing with in the future and what experience and, in some cases baggage, from their online life will they bring to careers guidance interactions. Current teenagers are often referred to as “digital natives” (urgh) but, in my experience this is a catchphrase that simplifies the more complex mix of online skills and deficiencies the majority of teenagers display.

“The ability to utilise the internet is a spectrum rather than a binary divide.”

This is true now but, as the current teenagers mature, this spectrum will alter and flex as they move through the education stages and into the workplace. Their current digital skills and priorities will change throughout this process as they mould their online experience and footprint to position them selves to best achieve their goals. Careers workers of the decades to come will encourage them to progress towards their career goals through embracing the digital communication and branding opportunities available online. I fear that this process will be akin to pushing a snowball up a hill though as future clients will start the process with years of baggage of social media usage. This baggage will manifest itself in two ways.

1) A long tail

Most modern teenagers treat social media and other digital methods of communicating not as tools to access specific information at specific periods but that they are part of their day as much as breakfast or brushing your teeth is. Their use of digital interactions seems (at least it is if you’re trying to get them to concentrate on anything) as fundamental to their waking moments as breathing. And all of this interaction (sometimes with local friends, sometimes with people they’ve never and will never meet in real life) leaves a trail of internet debris, a library of tweets, facebook posts, youtube comments, instagram comments, pinterest notes…. Every nock and cranny of their life can be, and usually is, seeped into the pores of the internet.

Now of course, teenagers don’t post all (or any) of this online just below a flashing neon sign with their full name or date of birth by it so potential future employers can quickly find this with the simplest of Google searches. They use pseudonyms and online tags as “xxXXXdizzaboiXXXxx” or “((lulzWaRrIoR))” which add a layer of confidentiality to their interactions but they are still there, online, forever. Imagine the worst case scenario for your own personal history. Cast your mind back to those first dates, those first underage nights out, that Sixth form group holiday, that high school play you (god knows why) were in…all loving recorded and displayed at the touch of a button.

Career minded adults are constantly reminded to police their own online behaviour for fear of negative consequences through a stream of news stories such as


Which, in turn, raises the question of just how expert in web search future HR departments are going to need to be to track down online histories and assuage the fears of employers that their preferred candidate isn’t a secret raving twitter loony.

2) The teaching of formality

“Connecting – describes the ability to build relationship and networks online that can support career development”

As their online communication is incessant and habitual, their checking system over both content and style of delivery is very weak. The ease by which the thought in their head makes its way onto the internet is too enticing. This means that levels of formality in language and tone are at extremely basic levels. Remember that time you accidentally sent a text to a work colleague and, through sheer habit, added an ‘x’ at the end? Imagine that but multiplied through generations. Encouraging formality and structure in online interactions to build fruitful career networks will be a major task of career professionals in the future.

“Grubb (2002) has urged caution about celebrating the availability of online careers information without also recognising the skills and literacies that underpin the effective use of these.”

There are two skills which I think are most relevant to Grubb’s observation and are lacking in this age group. Firstly, the ability to search the internet to find useful information is a possible weakness to consider when designing online careers provision and when assisting clients to access such provision. Young people struggle with the most basic online searches, sometimes asking you to repeat what you just said so they can type it verbatim into Google. An ‘online’ version of a careers library is sometimes regarded as an inferior model on which to base your online offer to clients but, in my experience, the clear structures and descriptions of job and work areas lead young people more quickly to the information they want to find. Ineffectual searching quickly leads to disengagement with the process as they fail to immediately see the relevance of the task.

The other skill is the impetus to take the online interaction into a ‘real world’ interaction. Colleagues that organise work experience in schools will know from experience that if you give a student an option of emailing or phoning an employer to request a placement; they will email every time. Requesting a student to phone an employer elicits a response of panic, disbelief and, sometimes, outright refusal which has to be overcome with encouragement and a steadfast refusal to take ‘no’ as an answer.  Another task for future career professionals will be to overcome an increasingly widespread aversion to face to face interaction. I should say at this point that, in my opinion, some of this trait can be based on a fear of failure. Reading a negative response in an email is much less of a knock to fragile confidence then putting your hopes on the line in a telephone or face to face conversation and then having them dashed.

“Online can no longer been seen as a parallel world where individuals take refuge from reality.”

Young people now seem to be very literate in their descriptions if asked (but perhaps not in their actions) of the dangers of online interaction with strangers. Through mildly hysterical media coverage and mildly dull assembly presentations they have a competent knowledge of the possible negative outcomes from their online profiles. Meanwhile, negative consequences to their own future career prospects of their online histories and interactions are not highlighted to them in any consistent way which is why resources such as this prezi by @GailMcguigan can be a useful starting point for raising this with this age group.
All quotes from “How the internet changed career: framing the relationship between career development and online technologies” by Tristram Hooley


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s