The futility of LinkedIn – Or is it just me?

KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON RANTING PosterTill about a couple of years ago, LinkedIn profiles with 500+ connections impressed me immensely. With that humongous network/reach at their disposal, they’d have a world of opportunities on a platter. I checked their profile to see what made them popular or ‘connection-worthy’. I secretly emulated their style, their profiles, etc.

Last weekend, I pruned my contact list and ended-up removing about 100 connections and quite a few of groups with the intent to eventually settle at a number below 250, or better still, log out completely.

How did it come to this?

In a world where distances and boundaries no longer matter and none of us has been left untouched by the digital disruption. In that world, a medium where professionals can connect and interact makes sense. Hence, the intention behind LinkedIn is a noble one, but its trajectory has been flawed.

Professional ‘interaction’ can be categorized into three somewhat overlapping sets – (1) Extending business/career opportunities, (2) Exchanging ideas, and (3) Disseminating views and opinions. Initially, LinkedIn was viewed as an advanced job hunting site which only later became a medium to explore new business opportunities. And while connecting and exchanging ideas might have happened, the idea of knowledge sharing is relatively new. I can’t claim with absolute certainty, but my assessment is that in all categories, LinkedIn hasn’t met with true success or delivered on the goods.

Here are my reasons why:

  1. Of the aforementioned three sets, (1) is characterized by its inherent partially-online/partially-offline nature wherein the platform only provides a medium for parties to advertise, make first contact, and connect. However, for these interactions to become popular and to attain critical mass, break-through successes (if any) must be show-cased in order to attract others and hence perpetuate the cycle. I am yet to see such success stories. Specifically on the job-hunt front, I see LinkedIn serving more as a second fiddle to professional recruitment firms. What more could a recruitment organization want other than a ‘well-defined third-party managed’ universe of professionals who proactively update their profile? Thus, you will see employment postings that come not from hiring managers/organizations but from head-hunting firms that link back to jobs which are essentially posted on their websites. As members attempt to pursue such job opportunities, they stumble upon payment-based job services or similar experience as traditional job-hunts.  Agreed, LinkedIn’s business model is to monetize on the network, which means that network growth benefits the organization (Premium subscriptions, Advertising, Talent solutions). However, with no substantial value trickling down to members, coupled with bad experiences such as the one mentioned above, contempt gets created and propagated undermining the credibility of the platform.
  1. With such a large assembly of professionals on one platform, the ability to crowd-source ideas or to have a meaningful debate should be a no-brainer. I am sure, that such discussions might be happening in isolated circles but they aren’t exactly mainstream or ‘trending’. Compare that to Facebook. I am sure we all agree that on Facebook we have not just our professional connects (sometimes) but also our family and friends who might not fit into the professional lot. Yet somehow the most interesting conversations are happening there (even on professional topics). In all fairness, this isn’t entirely because of the platform (although the platform does help in sustaining it). This is a specific manifestation of the general cultural problem of having to be politically correct. An open debate or conversation of any kind will dismantle much of the charade that the traditional corporate world really is. And it is this cultural flaw that partially defeats the purpose of LinkedIn, so while it becomes the boardroom, Facebook takes the role of the water-cooler or the hallway. Trouble is new ideas so rarely spring out from boardrooms. It’s ironic that the very trend, i.e. digitalization, which brought LinkedIn into prominence, is also rapidly changing the tenets of corporate world. Organizations’ ability to uphold formal, “stiff-upper-lip”, hierarchical structures is ebbing away. The very perception of authority is transformed, decision-making and ideation processes are changing radically. So quietly profound yet powerful are these changes that if corrective action is not taken, organizations and networks that compliment or mimic traditionalist structures may remain relevant for a while but, will eventually become an anachronism.
  1. Finally on the knowledge sharing aspect of LinkedIn. If memory serves me right, this started off through LinkedIn’s ‘Invitation to Blog’ initiative. I suspect it was a means to overcome the problem mentioned above. Also, it could’ve been aimed to rev-up the waning interest of its members and in the process create huge amount of professional grade content. But, if one throws but a cursory glance at the posts floating around, it’s filled with never-ending, annoying, ad-nauseam ramblings of born-again Jack Welch-es who seem to have figured out everything about career, life, death, and beyond. And more often than not most are recycled ideas. So, everyone is expressing their views on Leadership. Everyone has three-four-seven-or-eleven points on career development. Everyone has an anecdote to share on passion. Everyone knows the traits for influencing and getting ahead at work. Everyone is a networking guru and has ready-to-use tips to make anyone else become one too. And, just about everyone has been fired from a job and knows the exact trick to bounce back.

I’m no Facebook fanboy, but I sense an air of condescension when I read comparison between Facebook and LinkedIn, where the latter is positioned as ‘professional networking’ site boasting of white-collared experienced professionals with college degrees as members while, the former is a ‘social networking’ site for everyone else – from the CEO to the Janitor (and their families, and their pets).

Yet, more and more users are posting about current affairs (or issues pertaining to society, business) on Facebook; more and more videos or articles on innovative approaches/ designs/methods are showing up on Facebook; more and more people are logging into check-out the news – business and political – on links embedded in  Facebook instead of news portals. Looking at this, one has to agree that the folks in Menlo Park seemed to have got something right.

On the other hand, the ever increasing number of inspirational pictures, ‘comment if you are a genius’, ‘few people have figured this out’, and ‘Like if you are looking for a job in Timbuktu’ posts along with ridiculously asinine puzzles on LinkedIn is alarming. In the backdrop of the audience it caters to, i.e. ‘white-collared experienced professionals with college degrees’, this especially resembles a descent into chaos, which is what it probably is.

Maybe one of the reasons behind it is that the dominant group on LinkedIn is relatively older middle-or-senior management (including, yours truly, the author). A majority of whom, while suffering from the cultural flaw mentioned in point (2) above are (in any combination) also too proud, too insecure, too reticent, too unsure, or too clique-or-region-oriented to share, collaborate, and support freely. This in turn sets the cue for other sub-groups which follow suit leading to an equilibrium network.  Such networks are then susceptible to anyone to use them for their purpose. Enter third-party recruiters, social media marketers, and pointless content propagators who only seek to extract their pound of flesh from a relatively captive, stagnant, yet influential audience.

Lastly, I understand that each idea passes through inception, expansion, plateau, and decline or transformation phases. My assessment tells me that LinkedIn has definitely arrived at its equilibrium with members being incorrectly incentivized to increase network but not to add value to it.

And, as I was trying to understand what corrective measures I could take, I came across a wonderful piece by Athena Vongalis-Macrow (Assess the Value of Your Networks, HBR 2012). I quote it here verbatim [only but slightly paraphrased] as I couldn’t have said it any better:

Network strength can be measured by the strength of the relationships between members and what each member brings to strengthen ties. Andrew Hargadon (Professor, Graduate School of Management, University Of California, Davis) and Robert I. Sutton (Professor, Stanford Engineering School) identified three components that would make members valuable to any network: They were part pack rat, part librarian, and part Good Samaritan.

The pack rat brought a range of resources that could be accessed and used to create new and fresh ideas. The librarian brought information and knowledge. And the Good Samaritan had the attitude and practice of sharing.

A network built on relationships between talented, knowledgeable, [forward-looking], and supportive members is worth joining. If that relationship doesn’t exist, you may need to look elsewhere.”

The second-last sentence above captures what LinkedIn could be.

The last sentence captures my fear about the futility that LinkedIn could become.

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Prashant

Technologist,by profession. Principled,by nature. Nonconformist,by choice. Thinker,by habit. Corporate Slave,by force. Dreamer,by desire. Seeker,by destiny.