The Curse of LinkedIn

It rivals Facebook as an overly intrusive bucket of lies — but apparently it actually works.

Before I get started on this: I like social media. I enthusiastically “like” Facebook updates every day. I try to make my tweets a pleasant, humorous addition to my followers’ feeds. I don’t whine about Zuckerberg and his unforeseen Facebook changes, or fret that Instagram is “taking me out of the here-and-now.” I have a healthy relationship with all my internet personae. If social media were exercise, I’d say I work out five days a week for 30 minutes, as the American Heart Association recommends I do for basic digital health.

But when it comes to social networking and information aggregation, there is one site that I have always relegated to the lowest level of digital platforms: LinkedIn. When I made a profile my senior year of college, the very premise sounded unpalatable and douchey — the kind of self-commodification and compulsive business card-slinging that makes networking so horribly uncomfortable.

However, I was, at that stage, already rifling off desperate-sounding “networking” emails to my friends’ parents and was willing to try anything. I figured: what the hell. For years, my LinkedIn profile was an obligatory, but harmless, internet signature I might update every eight months or so. I never had a real reason for keeping it up, other than being assured it was a responsible, professional thing to do.

Recently, though, I’ve noticed LinkedIn getting … noisier. Their “update” emails are coming nightly now, broadcasting all the ambitious activities of my peers and … well, randos. I’m getting connection requests from the most distant acquaintances. Someone I did yearbook with in high school. An older relative I know has been retired for over 20 years. I guy I think I went out with once sometime in 2011? Also, total strangers. “I’d like to add you to my professional network.” But we’re not professionally connected in any way, I want to shout at the screen. We’ve never worked together. I’m not sure what you do. I really don’t think I can help you.

I’d say about 2 percent of my LinkedIn connections are actual colleagues, many of whom pop up on my “people you may know” vertical. But I can’t bring myself to make the first move on LinkedIn. There’s something about asking people whose work I know and value to cyber-formalize our relationship that feels trivializing. Emily Goulet, our lifestyle editor, for instance, shows up on there all the time. She interviewed me for my first job here. Her office is right next to mine. She can practically hear me burp. “I’d like to add you to my professional network.” It just feels cold.

I’m also getting a fair amount of “endorsements” these days. I don’t mean that to sound haughty, because basically all of the endorsements I get are for skills the endorser would have no knowledge of — an old teammate who recommended me for my “newsletter” skills, for instance. I don’t think I’d be bad at creating newsletters, but I’m not sure I’ve ever done it, though she certainly wouldn’t know that. So now what? Do I endorse some skill of hers? Again, we’ve lost touch. I’m not sure what she’s up to these days. “Great presence in the locker room in 2007?” (I went on a college friend’s profile to experiment recently — she has a solid career working in the Senate, so I thought I’d try to endorse her for “ninja skills” or “whiskey,” both of which popped right up as expertise areas. Then I decided against it. No room for fun on LinkedIn.)

Worse, though, are requests for endorsements. “Would you endorse me for my organizational skills?” To be clear, I have written many a rec letter in my day, and love to sing the praises of people whose work can vouch for. But asking for an endorsement via LinkedIn feels like the equivalent of a local gym I used to use (and adore) that put up flyers asking patrons to “like” them on Facebook. It seemed cheap.

Worse yet is the fact that LinkedIn seems determined to turn itself into Your Hub for Professional Self-Improvement Advice You Never Asked For. This, too, comes in regularly emailed newsletters. (Maybe I could show them a thing or two …) Bill Gates is apparently now penning items like “Three Things I’ve Learned From Warren Buffet.” HubSpot’s founder just wrote something called “A Great CEO Is the Chief Experience Officer.” Joel Peters, the Chief Experience Officer at JetBlue, just contributed an article with the headline “A Common Sense Solution to Slow Airplane Boarding.” I thought it would be one of those TED things, where the aisle is the workplace, the luggage the employees’ respective interests, the seats the bottom line, and so forth, but it’s actually about how to speed up the flight boarding process. Again: Never. Asked.

But the absolute worst, most torturous part of LinkedIn is this: I posted on Facebook a couple of days ago asking whether or not LinkedIn had, you know, ever directly improved anyone’s professional life. Fourteen comments in response. (I am not super popular; it seems that LinkedIn just really hits a nerve with people.) A handful of people had been reached out to on LinkedIn for jobs; many found their current jobs through the site. A girlfriend of mine that works in executive search uses it constantly. As one friend put it, “Random shit can come your way through channels like that.”

Well, crap, I thought. There is, it seems, an opportunity cost that comes with simply bailing on your account, which is what I originally wanted to suggest everyone do. I have to keep going on there, sorting requests and updating information and detailing my responsibilities because someday, I might be exactly the liberal arts–educated, former Division III runner with an expertise in city/regional print magazines that someone has been looking for. In Google searches, LinkedIn transforms me from Annie Monjar, shiftless blogger and sometime 5K participant, to Annie Monjar, employed editor with a glowing endorsement from her uncle.

So fine. I’ll keep accepting those invitations (I’m sure this post earned me a ton), but I hope they read something like one a friend of mine received last month: “I’d like to add you to my professional network … and even though I know this will probably end up another layer in the palimpsest of our non-communication, I’m taking this opportunity to remind you that I love you and I think you’re great.”

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  • Rob Bertsche

    As they say, it’s … complicated. Many of us joined Linked-In because it seemed like a Facebook for professional, grown-up people. Since then, though, Facebook has become more legitimate among the middle-aged professional set, and Linked-In has, I agree, become littered with the blogging equivalent of junk food: self-improvement and professional development posts that you read quickly and you forget even more quickly. The platform has become trivialized, and the “endorsements” are the worst. (I’ve told lawyers in my firm that it may be an ethical violation for a lawyer to permit herself or himself to be “endorsed” for a skill they lack. Much as I’d like to say I’m a great tax lawyer, it just ain’t so.)
    I hate the constant requests to connect to people I barely know (and I worry that Linked-In might be automatically sending such requests on my behalf to others, thereby alienating people whose names are secreted somewhere in my contacts list). I also hate the constant email updates from Linked-In touting articles posted in groups that I joined long ago in a frenzy of networking; I inevitably fall for the come-on, then wait while my iPhone takes me to the Linked-In app and shows me my home page, with the promised article nowhere to be seen.
    AND YET … There is something to the six-degrees-of-separation concept behind Linked-In. A while back, I received an email from a lawyer in California, a second-degree Linked-In connection, who had noticed that I was connected to a lawyer at a major pharmaceutical company. Turns out my California connection’s girlhood friend in Ireland was losing her battle with cancer and, after exhausting several regimens, was told there was only one drug left to try — and that drug, not yet FDA-approved, was available only in a limited trial being conducted by a single U.S. company — the one at which my pharma friend works. Long story short, I was able to connect the Irish girlhood-friend- of-the-California-friend-of-my-LinkedIn-connection to my other Linked-In connection at the pharma company. The cancer patient got in the drug trial, and, apparently, it worked. Last I heard, she was thriving. It was a satisfying and heartwarming small-world moment.

  • Mary Nelson

    I find that moderators can delete comments without explanation? I also feel that the kind of support that would be helpful doesn’t happen when one person endorses another without any knowledge of that person.
    I find myself wishing for a social media site that respects privacy and encourages real fellowship.