Facebook and Signalling: Are There Negative Consequences to not Being on Facebook?

From a letter to the editor published in last Saturday’s New York Times:

[O]ne big concern I have not seen discussed is whether not having a Facebook page is a liability.

An acquaintance recently told me that his church had hired a new minister. The final decision on which of two excellent candidates to hire came down to their Facebook pages. Presumably, candidates without Facebook pages didn’t get a second look.

Are we at the point where low Internet presence equals low job prospects?

We’ve all heard theories according to which Facebook is an enabler of narcissism, but this raises an interesting point regarding Facebook’s signalling potential.

Now, I have not exactly written down a formal theoretical model. Rather, this post is really just me theorizing from the hip, so bear with me.

Given the number of people who have a Facebook profile, assume all employers take a look at their prospective employees’ Facebook profiles before hiring them. Assume further that this is common knowledge (i.e., employers know that prospective employees know that employers know that prospective employees know and so on ad infinitum that employers look at Facebook profiles).

In that case, not having a Facebook profile serves as a signal of sorts. That is, not having a Facebook profile — or having a Facebook profile, but one that’s hidden from searches — could be a signal that whatever information one’s Facebook profile would contain or contains could be perceived as negative by one’s prospective employers. It is in this sense that not having a Facebook profile could be a liability.

I doubt not having a Facebook profile is actually a liability on the job market. For one, the author of the New York Times letter seems to assume that because the finalists both had Facebook profiles, those who did not did not have a Facebook profile did not make it to the final round of selection. I am not certain I follow that logic.

More importantly, if not having a Facebook profile were a liability, people would eventually create two Facebook profiles for themselves — a real one populated with their real friends, and a fake one populated with fake friends, which can apparently be purchased by the thousands.

I’ll admit that I routinely search Facebook to see if potential colleagues and prospective students have a profile. But my reaction when I cannot find anything is usually to think that said potential colleague or prospective student was smart to use Facebook’s privacy settings so effectively.


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