MTV debuted on August 1, 1981, airing The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star,” a song about a singer’s celebrated career cut short by the advent of television, as its first-ever video. In the process, it ushered in a new era for music—bands could no longer afford to have “faces for radio.” They had to look the part of rock stars as well.
Similarly, the Internet has fundamentally changed the job search. Resumes no longer speak for themselves, and the invention of the online job posting has largely turned job seekers into commodities.
This development was actually quite predictable; the Internet had initiated similar revolutions in the retail and travel industries via a nearly-identical evolution consisting of four stages: low information, slow information, central information, and meta-information.
By better understanding this evolution, job seekers can better understand how to combat this paradigm shift, so I’ll examine each stage in turn now. Before we begin, let’s quickly review a few examples for retail, travel, and the job search from each stage:
|Resource Examples by Information Stage|
|Buyer access to information (circa)||Low (Pre-Internet)||Slow (early 90s)||Central (mid 90s-00s)||Meta (mid 00s-)|
|Retail||Department stores||Retailer websites||Amazon.com, Pets.com||Google Shopping|
|Travel||Travel agencies||Airline websites||Travelocity, Expedia||Kayak, Sidestep|
|Job search||Classified ads in newspapers||Employer websites||Monster.com, Hotjobs.com||Indeed.com|
In the low information age (pre-internet days)
Before the Internet, sellers held most of the information. Thus, they could charge whatever the local market would bear, because the search costs were high. If a shopper wanted a new Members Only jacket in the 1980s, they would have to visit various retail stores in order to comparison shop–this required time and money (gasoline or bus fare). Even if this was done by phone, the time required was prohibitive for many shoppers. Thus, local retailers could earn a healthy profit on low-information shoppers unable or unwilling to comparison shop.
In the job search, people sought out classified ads and sent out blind cover letters and resumes printed on high-quality paper to employers of interest.
The slow information age (early ’90s)
In the nascent days of the Internet in the early 90s, this information started going online, but primarily in catalog format. Available products might be listed (“Sears, JC Penney, and Dillard’s have that Members Only jacket!”), or sometimes even pictured, but price information was sporadic, website load times varied, and purchases would still usually require an in-store visit or phone call. Better information was becoming available, but buyers’ access to it was slow.
Job seekers faced an identical struggle. Jobs may have been posted online back then, but actually digging around to find those postings was not that much more efficient than simply checking for them in newspapers or contacting employers directly.
The central information age (mid ’90s- early ’00s)
Aha! One-stop shopping finally comes to the Internet! In the late 90’s and early 00’s, mega-retailers of all stripes popped up. Pets.com spent gobs of money becoming the central hub for all pet supplies online. Amazon.com (more successfully) did the same for products of every kind. However, in its original incarnation, Amazon did not conveniently compare its own prices to others available on the web (as it does now). Thus, the website revolution at this point was toward centralized information – one-stop shopping proliferated, but comparison shopping still required many stops. That said, comparison shopping was becoming feasible, giving more power to the consumer.
Around this time, Expedia and Travelocity did the same for travel—their websites would publish the fares from all of the major airlines in just one search.
Job search websites like Monster and Hotjobs appeared during this stage, providing a central marketplace for employers to post jobs and job seekers to post resumes, increasing hiring efficiency for all parties involved. However, this nirvana was short-lived. While the job market stalled, technology surged ahead.
The meta-information age (mid ’00s+)
Google’s rise to prominence signaled the moment when meta-information (information about information) began to trump information itself.
Retail search engines like Shopping.com used this new technology to allow users to simultaneously search the central retailers (like Pets.com and Amazon) as well as the brick-and-mortar retailers’ websites themselves (think BestBuy.com), making comparison shopping very quick and easy. Amazon.com had no choice but to follow suit, including not only its own prices for products, but also other retailers’.
Job search engines like Indeed.com and SimplyHired were an inevitable evolution. They searched central job search websites like Monster and Hotjobs as well as the employers’ websites themselves. This simplified the location of relevant online job postings for job seekers, but it made the distribution of resumes so efficient that employers were now getting inundated with unsolicited resumes. and erasing the advantage well-qualified candidates used to enjoy based on their resume alone.
The downside of the job search’s entry into its meta-information stage was that erased the advantage local or well-qualified candidates used to enjoy based on their resume alone. Suddenly, everyone could now find (and apply to) jobs anywhere in seconds. An unsolicited resume circa 2005 had become what the free weekly AOL startup CD in your mailbox was in the 1990s—a somewhat-annoying, somewhat-laughable distraction.
Although the meta-information age has helped consumers get the best prices in travel and retail by reducing search costs and commoditizing even luxury goods, it has also dehumanized the job search, giving job seekers the illusion of progress despite not making any personal connections, getting any actual interviews, or learning more about their industry or employer of choice from those already in it.
What a Job Seeker Can Do To Fight Back!
Getting a resume into the hands of an employer is no longer a challenge; employers have plenty of resumes. Getting an employer to look at a resume is the challenge now.
During the low information stage, employers would care about the resume first and the candidate second. The reverse is now true in the meta-information stage; to get an employer to look at your resume, you must first get them to care about you as a person. It seems counter-intuitive that relationships are now more important than ever before, but resumes are so cheap to distribute that only those job seekers who rise above the online job posting clutter will be considered.
Technology can facilitate this process, but it must be used correctly to ensure a positive return on effort. This requires integrating the right technology into one unified strategy which systematically prioritizes targets at specific employers, allows efficient outreach, and creates genuine advocates. Only then does the job search become less like a lottery and more like an investment.
Technology may have killed the resume star, but it has also given resourceful candidates a reason for hope. The rules have changed, but the optimal strategy for finding employment today has yet to be established, leaving those who adapt most quickly to the meta-information age the opportunity to dramatically outperform the competition.
KEY TAKEAWAY: If you have a free hour, spend it on an informational interview rather than your resume, because nobody will read the latter without the former.