Twitter helps the powerful discover their worst selves and leaves everyone else vulnerable. Facebook brings people together only to subject them to marketing and manipulation. Our social feeds aren’t ready for the 2020 election. None of them are even ready for today. In recent months, they have faced serious scrutiny from Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike.
Except one. Is there anything the rest of the internet can learn from LinkedIn?
The site arrived in 2003 as an alternative to job-listing databases and steadily established itself as the professional sector of the social web. Like other networks, LinkedIn was, in its early years, a place to keep up with the people and institutions you had connected with there. In 2010, with the success of Twitter and Facebook’s social feeds as a backdrop, the service carved out its own space for sharing news and life updates. By 2016, when it was purchased by Microsoft, LinkedIn had affirmed its dual identity: It was a networking site for hiring and getting hired, but also a place for “professionals” (i.e. anyone with a LinkedIn account) to share links and thoughts, or what they thought other people might want to read and hear.
Today, a Facebook-style news feed, complete with like, comment and share buttons, is often the first thing users see when they open LinkedIn. The company’s internal editorial team, which writes and curates business content, has a staff of 65. They’re flanked by a massive slate of influencers — business leaders, subject-area experts and marketing gurus — who post regularly, the most popular of whom have millions of followers apiece.
At the end of 2018, the company said that, in one day, “over 2 million posts, videos and articles course through the LinkedIn feed.” Now LinkedIn claims to have more than 645 million users, 180 million of them residing in North America. Last year, it produced more than $5.3 billion in revenue for Microsoft. (For scale, that’s about one-tenth the revenue of Facebook, Inc., about half of Instagram’s and almost twice Twitter’s.)
Considering its size and social footprint, LinkedIn has been a notably minor character in major narratives about the hazards of social media. The site hasn’t proved especially useful for mainstreaming disinformation, for example, nor is it an obvious staging ground for organized harassment campaigns. It is unique among its social media peers in that it has not spent the last five years in a state of wrenching crisis.
And perhaps even more importantly, LinkedIn is not, in the popular imagination, a force for radicalization, a threat to democracy, a haven for predators, an environment that encourages mob behavior, or even a meeting place for pot stirrers.
“You talk on LinkedIn the same way you talk in the office,” said Dan Roth, LinkedIn’s editor in chief. “There are certain boundaries around what is acceptable.” Criticism of other users’ posts, he said, tends to be measured — “there’s a certain range in the voice,” he said — and users will often make the platform’s numerous implicit norms explicit, when they feel it’s necessary. “If you read the comments,” said Mr. Roth, “when someone goes out of bounds, you have other members saying, ‘Hey, bring this back.’”
“This is something that your boss sees, your future boss, people you want to work with in the future,” Mr. Roth said. “It’s as close to your permanent record as you can get.”
In the context of social media, this may sound slightly menacing. In the context of the modern office, it’s perfectly familiar.
“We bring implicit theories, or rules, to how we behave at work,” said Amy C. Edmondson, a professor at Harvard Business School who has studied workplace communication. These ideas about how to speak and behave in an office can be valuable but also mistaken, and sometimes individually and institutionally counterproductive. (A workplace where nobody speaks up is a workplace where little will change.) “Everyone at work has two jobs, and the other is the job of looking good,” she said. “These rules are largely oriented toward the second job.”
Scaling job two — looking good at work — up to a social network creates a new sort of venue: a non-office office, with thousands of bosses, none of them yours, all of them potentially watching.
The overwhelming incentive, as a job seeker, is toward caution. Likewise, there is little reason, as a boss, to tangle with especially difficult subjects. LinkedIn is plainly not a place to organize a union. Its mission is to mediate and facilitate a fundamentally unequal process. Topics that can be risky for rank-and-file workers to bring up in an office, such as pay inequality, diversity or workplace harassment, tend to unfold on LinkedIn in the manner of an event organized by human resources.
“These kinds of sensitive conversations will start from people at the top of companies,” Mr. Roth said, citing the Nielsen chief executive David Kenny’s announcement on LinkedIn that he would assume the additional title of chief diversity officer as an example. “When it’s a C.E.O. talking about it, you can speak in a more authoritative way.”
Nicholas Thompson, the editor in chief of Wired, is what you might call a LinkedIn power user. He publishes a daily video about technology to his more than 1.3 million followers on the site. Spicier material? He saves that for Twitter.
“It’s much harder to be a dissident on LinkedIn, or to spread awareness about autocracy,” Mr. Thompson said. Business stories do well, as do posts about his own work and the media industry in general. Gun violence? Not so much. “You don’t want to post an Andy Borowitz article,” Mr. Thompson, formerly an editor at The New Yorker, said. “People respond badly.”
Mr. Thompson also estimates that his American followers on LinkedIn are more evenly distributed along the political spectrum, as compared to his followings on Twitter or Facebook, where they tilt liberal. But, he said, “filter bubbles aren’t as strong, in part because people aren’t posting as much about politics.” The 2020 field of candidates is doing plenty of hiring on LinkedIn, but don’t expect campaigning there. Political ads are banned on the platform. In 2017, the last year outside analytics firms could track such things, Forbes.com was the most popular source of news posted to the site, according to NewsWhip. (The majority of posts tend to deal in the genres of self-help, motivation and marketing.) Of the top ten stories of the second half of 2017, nine were explicitly about work, and one was about a solar farm in China that is shaped like a panda.
“The risk on Facebook is becoming too toxic,” Mr. Thompson said. “The risk on LinkedIn is becoming too cheesy.”
As a platform that depends on its users to be careful and calculated in their self expression, LinkedIn proposes and exemplifies a brutally honest vision for social media. Sure, the platform studiously avoids “politics,” but the ideology of corporate America seeps out through its every user notification. There is no illusion of a level playing field — it’s a service that works better if you pay for it.
Like Facebook and Twitter, it’s a private space that is ultimately subject to the desires of its owners and their customers. Unlike Facebook and Twitter — and perhaps more like the workplace you report to every day — it never pretended to be anything else.
LinkedIn was never meant to “connect the world,” at least not without a caveat and a reason: it was built to connect “the world’s professionals,” and specifically “to make them more productive and successful.” Any debate about “free speech” on LinkedIn has to square with the fact that it’s a place where you have to pay to message people with whom you aren’t already connected. If Facebook or Instagram sent a notification every time you looked at another’s user’s profile, it would be a scandal; on LinkedIn, it’s a core feature of the platform. On other social media platforms, users might be careful in case employers see evidence of their lives outside of work. The identities performed on LinkedIn are contrived with employers in mind.
“There are hundreds of thousands of bosses, and tens of millions of people who want to please these bosses,” said John Hickey, who started using LinkedIn when he began working in advertising and now runs @BestofLinkedIn, a Twitter account that pokes fun at the site’s culture. “It’s insulated circles of people patting each other on the back, and it goes around and around and around.”
Mr. Hickey also posts a range of aberrant material — a particularly popular strain, he said, is people attributing business wisdom to their children. (He labels the posts, “Made Up Kid Monday.”) His followers send him more: blustery #MAGA posts met with awkward silence; unprofessional meltdowns; clearly fabricated office stories; misattributed quotes; cringe-worthy attempts at flattery. Finally, there are the truly mistaken.
“Some people,” Mr. Hickey said, “think LinkedIn is Facebook.”