Studying Social Network Sites: Meet Maria Plummer

Maria Plummer, a doctoral student majoring in Information Systems, does research on social network sites.

Maria Plummer grew up in St. Lucia, a Caribbean Island known for its natural beauty. As a girl, Maria and her friends spent time on the beach, playing cricket. But life on the island was not all play for Maria. Her father, a construction worker, encouraged her and her siblings -- three sisters and a brother -- to excel in school. Her father liked math and always gave Maria quizzes and puzzles to sharpen her mind. He was proud of her intelligence. 

Motivated by her parents, Maria did well in elementary school. When she took the placement test for high school, she scored so high that she earned a spot in the island’s top high school.  She excelled in high school, and when she took the A-level exams she ranked third in the country. That performance won her a scholarship to the University of the West Indies, where she majored in math and computer science. She graduated with first-class honors and was awarded the prize for the most outstanding graduate in math.   

She worked for a few years as a statistician and system administrator and then won a scholarship to the University of Waikato, New Zealand, to pursue a master’s degree in computer science.  After she graduated, for three years she worked as an information technology manager for the Ministry of Education in St. Lucia. She managed the installation of computer labs and networks in high schools across the island.  She then established and managed a consulting company that offered information technology services throughout the Caribbean. 

Working with people and computers, she became increasingly interested in human-computer interaction. She wanted to do research in the field at a university close to New York City, where her sisters live. A friend referred her to NJIT.  She applied and was accepted into the Information Systems (IS) Department, which focuses on how people use technology.

Now, four and a half years later, Maria is working at the top of her field.  She recently attended the International Conference on Information Systems Doctoral Consortium -- the most prestigious doctoral consortium in the field. There, she presented her research on social network sites and how people use them, or don’t use them, when looking for jobs.  The research is also her doctoral dissertation, which she did under the supervision of Dr. Starr Roxanne Hiltz.  Her findings could influence how social networks change to better suit job seekers. She graduated from NJIT in January 2010.

In this interview, Maria talks about her research into how job seekers use, or don’t use, social network sites to look for jobs.

How did you do your research about how people consider using social network sites (SNS) to look for jobs?
I created an online survey and invited registered users of two job-seeking databases, managed by NJIT and Rutgers, to participate. I received 490 responses, primarily graduates from the two schools. I asked them if they would share personal information with employers and if they used the online application forms and email links on social network sites.  The sites I mentioned in the survey were LinkedIn, Xing and Jobster.

And what were your most important findings?
An overwhelming 70 percent of those surveyed were either undecided or not inclined to share personal information with employers using social network sites to recruit job candidates. Similarly, more than 65 percent were either undecided or leaned towards not being likely to apply for jobs using social network sites.

What reasons did they give for not using the sites to find jobs?
I asked them to describe the main thing preventing them from applying for jobs on social network sites. Some cited privacy concerns, whereas others said there are limited jobs on these sites or that it took too much time to apply for them. Others thought these sites were for personal use and didn’t want to mix their personal lifestyles with professional matters. Still others didn’t trust the recruiters on these sites, saying some are “scams.”

What other interesting insights did you gather?
Older active job seekers were more likely to use social network sites to apply for jobs than younger job seekers. Gender did not have an influence on using these sites to apply for jobs. More educated, active job seekers seemed more likely to use social network sites to apply for jobs than less educated job seekers. Active job seekers with large networks of friends were less likely to use these sites to apply for jobs than those who have smaller networks. This was somewhat surprising. Probably those with large networks believe they have less control over what their large network of friends can reveal about them, so they are more fearful of the damaging effects this might have. It’s also possible that those with large networks simply accept invitations to “friend” anyone instead of strategically connecting with those who can help their careers.

What advice do you have for those who use social networks for job searching?
Job seekers should make themselves more marketable by including keywords that describe their expertise in their profiles. They should join industry-specific groups and judiciously contribute to discussion forums and blogs. They should also understand the advantages of using some features available in some social network sites.  LinkedIn, for instance, provides the Job Insider application, which informs job seekers of those within their social networks who work with potential employers of interest to the job seeker. Similar functions are provided within sites like Jobster and Xing, which is popular in Europe. Job seekers should leverage that information. They should also request recommendations from former supervisors, colleagues and professors through the recommendation tools in sites such as LinkedIn and Jobster. The skills tagging feature in Jobster can help job seekers distinguish themselves from others and make it easier for employers to match them to suitable jobs.

These days, will employers really be bothered by a bawdy photo of a job seeker on a social network? 

I didn’t study recruiters’ perspectives, just the job seeker’s perspective. But I have discussed this with people at academic conferences.  A consultant who had done some work with recruiters at MI5 said these recruiters are suspicious of job seekers who have no online footprint. So it might be better to have a presence on social network sites, even it’s a bit embarrassing, than to have no online presence.  Also, an Australian professor told me that employers in Australia are now overlooking the online presence of unflattering photos of potential job candidates. She suggested that those who demonstrate through their photos that they are free-spirited are arguably more creative and more interesting to some employers.

And how might the designers of social network sites change the job seeking functions so as to give job seekers more faith in using them?
The designers of social network sites should provide job seekers with more control in handling their personal information to alleviate privacy concerns. These designers should also devise means of promoting the usefulness of these sites and the tools provided within them for helping job seekers secure advertised jobs. Designing social network sites that are easy to use by job seekers is important. But it is not enough to encourage people to use these sites. Employers and recruiters using these sites must portray themselves as being trustworthy in handling personal online information about job seekers.

(By Robert Florida, University Web Services)