I Don’t Understand LinkedIn

Recently I have found myself more active on LinkedIn. The professional social network is strange web-space for a naive 19 year old to explore. The more time I spend on LinkedIn the more I have come to question its purpose.

As a tool for professional networking, LinkedIn falls short. Yet, as a platform for users to gain popularity, promote skills they may or may not actually have, and portray an online facade, LinkedIn works quite well.

The popularity contest

A week after I signed up for LinkedIn I had over one hundred requests to connect. These were mainly from acquaintances from high-school. I declined more than half. I am not self-righteous, I simply wanted to maintain the integrity of my profile.

My mindset was the opposite of my peers. I thought, “LinkedIn is intended to be for professional use. I will only connect with people I work with, do business with, or who I genuinely want to be part of my ‘network'”. Almost three years later I have 66 connections – I’m practically nonexistent.

The mindset of my peers is drastically different. Generally LinkedIn users ages 16-24 years old hold one of two mindsets. Either a; they created a profile and no longer use it, or b; they connect with anyone they have ever interacted with. Middle ground is hard to find.

LinkedIn is not useful for those who create accounts and never update them. For these people, LinkedIn serves no immediate value – rather it is a tool they may come back to use in the future, when “professional networking” seems like a good idea.

Group b are power users who work diligently to connect with many people. These users are also overlooking the possible value of LinkedIn. LinkedIn is transformed into a popularity contest. I have heard my peers refer to the, “race to 500”. Connections on LinkedIn are perceived as a valuable measure of ones self-worth. When in actuality the majority of the people you “connect” with don’t know a thing about your professional life.

I have 66 connections. Those 66 people know me. They know what I like. They would vouch for me, support me, and most importantly put in a good word for me if I asked.

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What is the point of having a surplus of connections? Am I naive to think that your true connections will get lost in the sea of names and profile pictures?

Skills & endorsements

Bragging about yourself is a good thing, and in certain professional contexts it is necessary.

LinkedIn allows users to promote the skills of their connections, and displays a users “top skills” on their profile. It is perceived from someone viewing a profile that the information in the “top skills” section is forthright, accurate, and honest.

The value of the top skills section is derived entirely from the integrity of the people promoting another users skill-set. Which begs the question, why would someone go out of their way to falsely promote someone else?

The answer is not very scientific, rather it is simply an extension of the popularity contest discussed above. Power users regularly trade “promotions” with other power users to boost the number of people who have promoted them.

From my profile you get the sense that I know a little bit about web development, WordPress CMS, and search engine optimization. This is a fair assessment of my current skill-set. My most promoted skill has the endorsement of 4 people – I must not be very good at it.

What is the point of having people you do not really know promoting skills you may or may not have? Again, am I to naive to think that this is a recipe for disaster?

Where there is value

From my perspective I fear that most all of LinkedIn’s value has been corrupted. Thankfully, the social network has made a recent acquisition that can alter the course.

With the purchase of Lynda.com LinkedIn has gracefully entered into vertical integration. If, (this is a big if) LinkedIn can successfully become a resource to learn skills online they can then leverage their fledgling professional social network site.

Imagine the profiles of my peers filled with certificates from online courses. A balance of “promotions” from other users and verifiable certificates of skills would be a powerful resource for potential employers.

Yes, as it stands, LinkedIn has morphed into an online popularity contest. A virtual world where the number on a users profile means more than the words of a few.

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2 thoughts on “I Don’t Understand LinkedIn

  1. I’m looking at LinkedIn from the other side of a career path — in my 40s with over 500 connections (as best I can tell, the stop counting after 500). I don’t use LinkedIn a lot, but I’ve definitely taken more of the “surplus of connections” approach. While there’s nothing wrong with the approach you’re using, here’s the value I get from it that you’re missing by being selective.

    Careers are long. You’ll work with a lot of people. Industries, though, are small, which means you’ll also run into a lot of passed connections as you proceed in your career. Particularly for me as a former consultant, the list of “folks I’ve done business with” is really long. There’s no way I can remember all of them. But with a LinkedIn connection, I have a tool to jog my memory.

    James seems familiar, so I look him up. He was at MegaCorp in 2004, and I spent a year there fixing their security policies and compliance. That’s right, he was the lead trainer for that one department — OK, now I have a recollection of James, so that when we’re working on something new, in entirely different jobs at entirely different companies, we still have some common ground and shared experiences. It’s not enough to give me license to hit him up for a favor, but if our paths cross, it does ease the process of establishing a working relationship because we’ve already done that once before — LinkedIn refreshes the memory of a real-world track record.

    It gives me opportunities to see how careers develop, which can help me find ways to want to take mine. The continual flow of “Sally changed jobs” messages is curious from a gossipy standpoint, but it’s also informative. I know Sally was a great analyst, but now she’s doing something else, which means she found a way to add certain skills, and that combination of peanut butter and chocolate lead to some real opportunities. Should I try to puzzle it out on my own? Ask her for advice? See if her old job is open because I’ve always wanted to work there? None of those would be options if I didn’t have the indicator that change was afoot.

    I’ve had plenty of “Oh my God, I didn’t know you worked here” moments which LinkedIn made possible. Old friends from college, former co-workers, people I used to know tend to show up at companies where I’ve worked — for no other reason than the world is small. LinkedIn has been the reunion committee. Probably not a big deal when you’re 19, since nobody is a distant memory. In 10 years, you’ll feel differently.

    You will change jobs, as will people you’ve worked with in the past. You may not know someone well enough to ask for a recommendation, but you might know them well enough to ask for a direct line to a hiring manager, or the inside scoop on working conditions, or some other more limited info.

    Again, there’s nothing wrong with using LinkedIn like you do. I know many people who do so. If you treat it like a database of folks you know well enough to ask for bail money, though, you’ll miss out. You already know who those people are and probably how to get in touch with them. You’ll have a positive impact on the working lives of vastly more people than that, though, over a long career. Keep track of who those people are, one way or another. I like LinkedIn for that since it’s well accepted, self updating, and easy.

    1. Thanks for the comment Rich, it is nice to read about your perspective. Your anecdote about “James” is what I imagine LinkedIn should be used for. But as a young adult I find that my peers treat their connections as “friends on Facebook” rather than real connections to further their professional careers.

      That is where I feel the divide is occurring. I imagine that your generation (I’m generalizing here, but I think it is safe to assume that you are older than I) uses LinkedIn more powerfully, with more purpose. I’d imagine you are not connected with your entire high school graduating class – that would be unnecessary. Yet, as a teenager I have had dozens upon dozens of requests from people who’s names I don’t know, but faces I would recognize from passing periods in high school.

      That is where I get concerned. My generation uses LinkedIn like any other social networking platform – like the popularity contest I outlined above. When in actuality it should be used in the way you described in your comment.

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