Since its inception in 2003, making fun of LinkedIn has become a thriving online subculture in its own right. There’s an active subreddit and multiple Twitter accounts dedicated to sharing screenshots of the most obnoxious and self-aggrandizing posts: the inspiring fables people share from their own lives, a high proportion of which involve banal acts of kindness directed at hospitality workers; the business insights gleaned from their young children; the stern, tell-it-like-it-is injunctions to work on the weekend or you’ll live to regret it. There is an extreme form of context collapse at play here, where content which might be inspirational on one platform becomes straightforwardly absurd on other, less forgiving ones. My favourite slice of LinkedIn mockery is a fake story attributed to a typical influencer: “Yesterday I was walking to an interview. There was a starving dog on the road. I stopped to feed him & missed the interview. The next day I got a call asking to come in to do the interview. I was surprised but I went. Then the interviewer came in. He was the dog.” However absurd, it’s an effective satire of the platform’s tendency towards self-aggrandizing parables, and the way that everything which happens to its users can be mined for some obscure lesson in business philosophy. If you wrote in this register on Twitter, you’d be mercilessly bullied, as happens every time someone tries to bring the same energy there. But lacking its own internal culture of mockery, LinkedIn is a platform where the ego can run rampant: it allows for humble-bragging without the humility.
What LinkedIn means to you probably depends on the industry you work in. For many, it remains a vital tool for networking, recruitment, and professional development; for others, it mostly functions as a way to check out what your exes are up to now or to satisfy a bitchy curiosity about whether someone you don’t like went to private school or an elite college. Despite its status as a figure of fun, LinkedIn tends not to loom large in public conversations about social media. It has certainly proved less controversial than the other major players, never having been associated with data overreach, online radicalization, harassment or trolling – in this sense, its relentless earnestness and banality works to its advantage. It mirrors the norms of the actual office: everyone is on their best behavior because their boss, or someone they might want to work for in the future, can see what they’re up to. It’s a cautious, temperate and mild-mannered place, even if it does often give rise to baroque displays of annoyingness.
I’ve always thought of LinkedIn as something of a hangover to an older, somewhat dusty and obsolete version of working life: wearing a suit, working a nine-to-five, and going to a corporate office every day. It occupied a similar position in my mind as ‘Friends Reunited’, an old-fashioned social media platform that my parents use, and one which certainly had no bearing on my own life or career as a freelance writer. But contrary to this perception, LinkedIn has been highly successful in adapting to changing patterns of employment and workplace, as well as attracting a flux of new Gen Z users. While recent years have seen an uptick in usage of its trendiers rivals like Upwork and Fiverr, Gen Z is currently using LinkedIn more than any other work-related app.
The platform has made a concerted effort at building relevance among Gen Z, and has pulled this off to a surprising degree of success. In an attempt to meet the younger generation where they are, it has added new video features (an attempt to launch a Snapchat style disappearing story was a flop, but longer form video profiles have proven popular); a podcast network; and a Clubhouse-style audio feature. It has also made some progressive changes, such as allowing users to add their pronouns. Today, the total number of engagement by Gen Z on LinkedIn is over twice as high as it was in early 2020, with 78 million Gen Zers on the platform.
Whether or not LinkedIn can appeal to a new audience, then, has been proven beyond doubt. But however many Gen Zers are on the platform, its ethos and sensibility seems curiously at odds with the prevailing cultural zeitgeist. While every generation has its share of strivers and hustlers, a significant number of Gen Zers takes an irreverent or even hostile approach to work: think of the rise of the anti-work movement (if “movement” isn’t too lofty a term to describe what largely remains a collection of memes); the ‘Great Resignation’, a brief period during which quitting your job became the most aspirational goal of all; the rejection of the ‘girl-boss’ archetype, or the ubiquity of the quickly-tedious catchphrase, “I don't have a dream job - I don’t dream of labor”. As gauche as the statement might have been coming from a billionaire, Kim Kardashian was responding to a real cultural trend when she declared that no-one wants to work these days. The idea that everyone was gleefully quitting their jobs was always more of a dream - or a longing - than a reality, but still, the idea of lauding hard work as a virtue in itself has become deeply passé.
Within this context, more and more people are coming round to the idea that work should not be the primary source of meaning and identity – an attitude which could not be more opposed to the earnest, reverent and go-getting ethos of LinkedIn, where a person’s job is by far the most important thing about them, and the strongest animating force in their life. This shows the futility of making sweeping statements about the character of a given generation: for every Gen Zer getting high and making memes about Marxist-Leninism, there’s a striving young Patrick Bateman investing in crypto and listening to podcasts about how to become a CEO. Living through successive economic crises can certainly inspire anti-work sentiments, but it can also lead to the exact opposite: an understandable, if unfortunate, fixation on getting ahead and securing your own interests at whatever cost.
Beyond the anti-work zeitgeist (which, as we have seen, has made absolutely zero dent in LinkedIn’s popularity among young people), there is another social media trend which is already impacting how we professionally network. Since the beginning of the pandemic, there has been a shift towards privacy, which I think expresses a growing exhaustion with the onerous task of public self-promotion. In place of traditional social media platforms, closed messaging apps such as Signal, Telegram, Discord and even the humble Whatsapp group chat have soared in popularity. For many, these alternatives offer a mode of communication free from the suffocating feeling of being under constant scrutiny (this isn’t always an unalloyed good: these apps have also afforded a safe haven to all manner of unpleasantness.)
You might think that closed messaging is antithetical to the idea of networking, in which public image is everything, but these apps are allowing new ways of forming professional connections. There are Discord servers and Whatsapp groups dedicated to specific professions and fields, perhaps tied to specific locations. These kinds of closed contexts are obviously more exclusive: on Twitter or LinkedIn, there’s nothing to stop you sidling up to a group of high-status people having a chat and attempting to barge in with a joke or observation (although you’re perhaps just as likely to be met with frosty silence.) This is impossible if the same people are having the same conversation behind closed doors. But if you are able to find your way in, these more private kinds of networking can prove more advantageous, and help to foster more meaningful relationships. The imperative to present the best possible version of yourself at all times, in front of an often uncharitable audience, doesn’t lend itself to easy communication or self-expression. At the very least, using Signal or Discord makes you far less likely to find yourself the subject of viral mockery on Twitter or Reddit.
Even just anecdotally, I get the impression that lots of people today are tired of promoting themselves in public, and bored with the never-ending task of maintaining a personal brand. It’s easy to laugh at LinkedIn’s hyper-earnest motivational fables, but many of us are doing the exact same thing, whether we’re dashing off incendiary polemics on Twitter, doing a kooky little skit on TikTok or posting holiday snaps on Instagram. It’s still about manufacturing an impression with the hope of some reward, whether tangible (a new gig) or intangible (clout) – it’s just that different platforms reward different sensibilities. Perhaps our contempt at the LinkedIn influencers is merely the rage of Caliban at seeing his own reflection in the mirror: at least these people have the integrity to be honest about their grasping need to be admired. And personal branding isn’t going to go away simply because we’re fed up with it. The task of self-promotion is more important in an economy defined by gig work and temporary contracts– in the US, there has been an enormous increase in freelance working since 2021, a trend which looks set to continue. A fixation on personal branding is often less about individual narcissism and more about economic necessity, and if anything we’re going to have to rely upon it more in the future. If you’re visible on the internet in any professional capacity, it’s impossible to reject: making a big deal about how you don’t care becomes its own form of branding. No matter how much we might dress it up in irony or tastefully curated aesthetics, we are all LinkedIn influencers now.