People Powered

Ever watch Survivorman? It’s a "reality show" about a rugged Canadian who ventures into various wildernesses and roughs it to the extreme. This year, he released a documentary, Off The Grid with Les Stroud, in which he and his family build a home on a 150-acre bush lot, which functions using wind and solar power, rain harvesting, and other methods in order to live "an energy-conscious and self-sustaining life."

Stroud says his kids are "good with it," but back in suburbia, his son played hockey and his daughter loved ballet classes. Stroud emphasizes that despite his desire to live off grid, he wanted to do it in a way that did not require his children to completely sacrifice the life they knew—thus the need for plumbing and power.

Yet one thing he fails to mention is the effect the choice to live in so isolated a location has on his family’s sense of community. Watching the program—despite the children’s apparent (if unlikely) enthusiasm for construction and snowshoeing 2 kilometers to get the mail—I questioned the lack of footage of them complaining about missing their friends. Certainly, that wasn’t the point of the program, but even the way-off-grid Amish value community.

Sure, there have always been families who lived in remote areas, but most of us count on an extensive network of interconnectivity with friends, family, co-workers, and even random encounters with strangers. This has become amplified by our always-on connectivity and intense social interaction online. In looking for information on Stroud’s documentary, I found at least a dozen blogs and communities reflecting interest in Off The Grid in which people debated the merits of his move—from the cost of green construction to the actual greenness of a build that requires helicopters to bring materials to the remote location.

I never saw a computer in Off The Grid. It showed how a variety of comfort and entertainment items were powered, yet it didn’t mention whether cell phones or internet access would function at the remote site. I wonder about educating a modern child without the latter (though not having a phone might be a plus). It also occurred to me that his family will lack the sorts of networks that people today form online, particularly those who are otherwise physically or socially isolated.

Isolation isn’t the only reason we form communities online, of course. As seen with Stroud, communities of interest spring up around a multitude of topics. As a reflection of the increasing importance of online communities, social networking tools abound, offering everything from topical threaded forums to complex professional networks. Consider LinkedIn, for example, which just received another $22.7 million investment.

Perhaps you join to build a network of contacts related to your profession. Then, for good reasons or bad, you find yourself looking for a job. As opposed to your basic want ad, LinkedIn offers handy features to weather the modestly dubbed "economic downturn" we are facing. First, click the Jobs button at the top of the page. A search for editor in my area turns up a couple dozen jobs, but more interestingly, each shows my connections—if someone I know knows someone at a company that’s hiring. I have always tapped my network for recommendations, but in tough times I wouldn’t hesitate to ask someone to introduce me to one of his or her friends who works for a potential employer.

Now click the Companies button and search for your dream company. A search for Wired magazine turns up 88 employees in my network. If I click a name, it shows how I’m connected with that person, which helps me decide if I can ask for an intro. It also shows new hires and recent promotions—both relevant when I’m prospecting for jobs somewhere that may not have posted a want ad. Of course, jobs listed through LinkedIn are included on a given company page as well. If you are plotting out your ultimate employment trajectory, LinkedIn shows the career path taken by most employees in a given company.

Given that LinkedIn has more than 29 million members from around the world and every Fortune 500 company has C-level representation on LinkedIn, the odds of finding a job you want, and better still, a connection at the company, are pretty good. I can reach more than a million people through my relatively modest 82 connections.

Two things are remarkable about these LinkedIn features: First, they are free. Upgrades allow for more direct access to members and offer impressive recruiting HR functionality, but most of us don’t need to pay to get significant value. Secondly, these features are fueled by information freely provided by the community itself. We offer up our work and educational history and allow LinkedIn to make more than just connections between us; the company is building an information grid that has only begun to be expressed as data that may be the right tool for the job of surviving these economic times.