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Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

InternetApril 3, 2023

What is the allure of LinkedIn?

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

It’s one of the oldest social networking sites, predating Facebook, Twitter, even MySpace. And it will probably outlive all of them.

Rob Campbell was a man with an opinion after the National Party announced its alternative to the Three Waters policy at the end of February. A few days later he was a man without not one but two high-profile jobs. Why? The chair of Te Whatu Ora and the Environmental Protection Authority simply couldn’t resist the temptation to post. Specifically, he couldn’t resist the temptation to post on LinkedIn

The Campbell LinkedIn saga was remarkable not for the efficiency with which he was stripped of his government posts, the chutzpah with which he denied that his posts violated the tenets of the Public Service Commission’s code of conduct, or how familiar a number of breathless politics watchers promptly became with said code of conduct. The biggest thing the Campbell saga revealed was the way Linked in is used today, and how one of our oldest and possibly most boring social media platforms is more relevant than ever. 

LinkedIn is one of the original social media platforms – founded in 2002, it predates Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and TikTok, as well as largely abandoned platforms like Bebo and MySpace. Now owned by Microsoft, its point of distinction has always been a focus on the professional: you construct your profile like a CV, listing where you’ve worked and been educated. The main newsfeed is similar in look and function to Facebook, but posts consist of news about people moving jobs, leaving jobs, or succeeding at jobs. It’s literally all work and no play.

rob campbell an older white man looks shocked surrounded by emojies and a slightly intense pixelated red background
Rob Campbell, LinkedIn user (Image: Archi Banal)

Like any other social media platform, LinkedIn has its own linguistic conventions and habits – to outsiders, the platform is defined by an excess of what some have called “cringe”, extreme examples of which are documented by the Reddit community r/LinkedInLunatics. The LinkedIn algorithm particularly favours a form of writing dubbed “broetry”, where quasi-inspirational stories and banal anecdotes are spaced out in single sentences over multiple lines, presumably to boost engagement.

“There’s definitely a LinkedIn formula,” says Josie Adams, a former Spinoff staff writer who now works as a content writer for a technology company. Part of her role is to post on behalf of her company’s founders on LinkedIn, as well as managing the company’s page. This has only increased her cynicism. “I’ve never seen a good LinkedIn post,” she says. 

Despite this, Adams admits that being active on LinkedIn led directly to her current job. She’s followed exactly the advice of Massey digital marketing lecturer Phoebe Fletcher, who recommends that each of her students makes a LinkedIn account.

“LinkedIn is a way to network with people in your field without having to pay thousands of dollars to go to a conference,” Fletcher says. “We live in a world that is online – it’s important to connect!” To translate that into LinkedIn speak: your network is your net worth. 

A white woman in an office throwing paperin the air
LinkedIn posts: do they need a bit more chaos? (Getty Images)

But that networking can’t be achieved merely with insipid items of professional news. It’s 2023, and LinkedIn’s active user base – Campbell among them – has realised that the platform is yet another way you can tell people about your ideas. That’s incredibly valuable, says Jehan Casinader. The writer and journalist now has 18,000 followers on LinkedIn – enough that he gets recognised on the street for his posts. He started taking LinkedIn seriously when he released a book about his experience with depression. He wanted to do speaking and event facilitation, and he used LinkedIn to promote himself, writing short pieces with photos about everything from how to talk to a friend about mental health to what he learned by being able to fix his own car tire. 

“I didn’t have any deep connections in the corporate world,” he says. He’s now spoken at numerous major organisations and conferences. “You can tell a good story on [LinkedIn], just like anywhere else.” 

Casinader says popular LinkedIn posts are often informative or clearly communicated ideas, an example of the social media platform letting “cream rising to the top”. Just like a column or a piece to camera, he works on his craft: each post of a few hundred words takes an hour or two of close attention – and he thinks that this is why his LinkedIn statuses have resonated with thousands of people. It’s a far cry from the “toxic cesspool of negativity” that is Twitter. “People are interested in good stories, in engaging with the stuff you’re grappling with,” he says; if you’re going to be making connections on the internet, Casinader thinks LinkedIn is a more productive place to do it than any other social media platform. 

LinkedIn’s reputation for being positive is certainly helped by another of its features: the absence of any “sad” reaction button – as if the platform doesn’t expect users to feel any negative emotions. “It should be more negative, and it should be funnier,” says Adams, who experiments with humorous writing on LinkedIn herself (with, admittedly, a much lower follower count than Casinader’s sincerity has achieved). 

But maybe the business skew of LinkedIn is enough to keep the platform positive. “LinkedIn isn’t very political,” says Fletcher. “It often comes up when people Google you, and [if you’re job hunting] you want to show that professional side.”

white woman frowns at a bland laptop with some plants, looking frustrated and concerned
LinkedIn posts don’t always reflect the reality of work (Image: Getty Images)

Of course, posting on LinkedIn is a performance of professionalism – just like posting on Twitter is a performance of pithy irony and posting on Instagram is a performance of the aesthetic considerations of your life. But while the self you present to your LinkedIn followers might seem totally alien to the self you present to your Tumblr followers, some self-regulation and compartmentalising has always been part of the human experience, Fletcher suggests. 

“People make decisions all the time about what to disclose, what audience they’re speaking to,” she says. The difference is that in being, explicitly, a platform for people with jobs, the audience that people are imagining is potential future employers. On LinkedIn, you’re always showing the best parts of yourself, as if you’re in a job interview. 

The inclination towards “professionalism”, whatever that means, is perhaps part of the reason Rob Campbell’s post made such a splash – we rarely hear of pearl clutching about the latest trend on LinkedIn, unlike the rabid attention often given to teenagers on TikTok. Given that many people use LinkedIn to look for work, both users and companies are incentivised to show only the cleanest, most productive versions of themselves. The algorithm is more interested in this performance of productive labour than anything more outrageous. Or maybe it’s because the people who excel on LinkedIn tend to have other markers of power and wealth – there’s no headline in a succeeding business talking up its continued success on LinkedIn.

With all its idiosyncrasies, LinkedIn has found a way to endure. It’s already outlasted several major social networks, and it might outlast more. It’s got Jehan Casinader’s storytelling. It’s got Josie Adams’s shitposts. It’s got Phoebe Fletcher’s former digital marketing students helming corporate accounts. It’s got the occasional political scandal, and chances are it has your nicest headshot and tidily conveyed work history, too. All these work to keep LinkedIn around. It’s also, at the very least, one social media platform it’s OK to use at work.

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