Let's take a quick look at why personal contact is so important.
• People have been using their personal, familial, and friendship networks to find good employees for several thousand years. Résumés and cover letters have been around for, what-a hundred years?
• Yes, personal networking has meant discrimination in the past and still does today and that is a Bad Thing. However, it's not likely to go away and the answer to change is increased networking by women and minorities and regulation to ensure at least some fairness in the hiring process. One of the most successful job programs I've ever seen was City Year in Boston and they spent about a quarter of the trainees' time on learning how to network and then actually meeting with and speaking to executives of major corporations.
The Perfect Candidate is a mythological creature. No one really gets a job because they are The Best. There are a number of candidates who are Qualified--sometimes most of the applicants are Qualified--so how do you decide? You could flip coins or ask sillier and sillier interview questions (which they do) or you could just give up and hire someone from inside the company.
The civil service was invented by the Chinese who tested candidates in Poetry and Philosophy. Do you really think that meant a damn thing if they were assigned to oversee the broccoli crop?
• Personal contact means a greater level of confidence in a new employee. The person who recommends a candidate has their reputation at stake--so they are vouching for this person. If the applicant has contacts within the organization , HR can check them out by talking to current--and therefore trusted--employees.
• Job Karma. Networking and trying to get jobs for acquaintances isn't evil. Everyone does it because
a) it feels good to help someone who deserves help,
b) it feels successful to have found jobs for a lot of people and,
c) when you need help, there are people out there willing to step up and help you.
• Personal contact is engaging in the real world and not filtering it through statistical filters, written rules, or online persona's. Getting to know people, getting a real feeling for someone through the people they've dealt with in the past, doing favors for people, this is real life.
• Yes, it's frightening. It feels so great to finish an online application and hit the ENTER key. It's solid and definite and you can do it in your pajamas. It's nice to know that you will be judged fairly on your merits and be hired for the position you deserve. It's too bad that all of this is a fantasy. Actually calling people up is hard. Writing to everyone you know and asking for leads and contacts is embarrassing. Sitting down with a stranger and impressing them with your personality is terrifying.
• Finally, personal contact works. Networking works, Buying coffee works, Breakfast meetings work, informational interviews work, interning works, even temping in an organization works. You can hate it. You can say that you're too shy to talk to people. You can say it's unfair and biased. But you cannot say it doesn't work.