LinkedIn and the network effect

Finding new professional contacts and keeping existing ones used to be a lot more difficult before the Internet, and now it’s becoming more difficult because of the Internet, or well, they way the Internet is monetized.

LinkedIn doesn’t cost anything to sign up and put your information on, and it would have a hard time convincing job-seekers or the employed if it wasn’t gratis. It’s kind of like free beer at other professional events, where the gratis stuff attracts people that might not otherwise bother. But unlike the free beer at that glorified sales info sessions, LinkedIn sticks to you, it becomes your online business card and professional directory. Furthermore, and like the free beer, LinkedIn has got to recoup the cost of the beer and more, as it must feed Wall Street’s insatiable thirst for growth. The conflict between being good at being your online professional network and being good at making money is the core of what’s wrong with LinkedIn: their interests aren’t the same as their users’ interests.

You may reasonably decide to do a quick query for “Paul Jones” on LinkedIn to see if I’m a hypocrite, and you would likely be slowed down by how many entries there are, so I’ll save you the trouble: I’m still on LinkedIn. Why? Evert Pot has a great way of putting it:

My only issue is that I feel, as an independent contractor, I’m obligated to maximize my potential in acquiring new customers. I don’t yet have the luxury to shut down an entire channel for new leads, despite the fact that LinkedIn has actually done very little for me in that regard. On top of that LinkedIn has become so ubiquitous that it’s actually become a standard question during some interview processes to ask for my profile. I feel that “I don’t have one” because of “principles” is never a great opener when you just made a new connection with someone.

Richard Stallman is often mocked on these grounds, of being unreasonable because of principles. A business person might deem this the “network effect” while a 5 year old might identify it more cogently as “peer pressure.” But it’s true. Everyone (in the professional scene) seems to be on LinkedIn, which means I have many reasons to be on there too. Then, because I’m now on it, LinkedIn as a service is more (even if only ever so slightly) valuable to a potential user. This compounds across millions of users until it’s inescapable. Facebook and Twitter have this same property as networks, and at least Facebook has found a pretty good way of monetizing without harming users too much: displaying engaging content from advertisers for a price. It isn’t perfect because advertising is annoying and has privacy concerns, but these are by no means insurmountable for users or for Facebook.

The biggest place that I see LinkedIn getting paid is for the “InMail” they sell to recruiters for the privilege of contacting people on platform. Unfortunately, just like every member of my trade which joins LinkedIn adds value, every sham recruiter and message they send me removes value from the network. Here’s Henrick Warne on the problem with recruiters:

Plenty of times, I have received messages from recruiters asking if I am interested in an “amazing opportunity”. Even if I am happy at my current job, I am always a little bit curious. You never know whether it is a great job or not. But before I can say if I am even remotely interested, I need to know some details. “OK, please send us your CV”. What? LinkedIn is my CV, you have already seen it. Next, they want to schedule a phone call. Why? Just mail me the details. If I agree to talk to them, they will act as if I contacted them, and they are now “helping me with my career” by jumping into interview mode. No, I don’t need your help. Just tell me about the “amazing opportunity”, and I will say if I am interested or not. If I am, we can take the next step.

The positive network effect that LinkedIn gets is increasingly stifled by the negative network effect of recruiters. Which is a problem, because the recruiters are the ones that are, in part, keeping the lights on. These misaligned interests are more than just some fuzzy notion I’m using to criticize LinkedIn, this conflict actually manifests itself in the product. As many people have embarrassingly realized, LinkedIn is terrible for contacting people and taking information that it tricks the user into. Here’s Dan Schlosser describing “dark patterns”:

In UX design, a dark pattern is design that works against users. It might trick them into doing the wrong thing, or just confuse them to the point where they can’t figure out how to do something that the designers don’t want them to do. This could be making it hard to delete a user account, or in LinkedIn’s case, making it really hard to use the service without importing your entire address book.

Unfortunately for LinkedIn, I’m of the opinion that the way forward is to decentralize the web from Silicon Valley unicorns, and I envision a utopia where everyone cares enough to host their own website. Perhaps it’s a pipe dream, but as technical skills are disseminated and the barrier to entry becomes lower thanks to improved tools, I have hope that people will come to desire control of their own Internet presence. Until then, I’ve un-connected with all the people I don’t know on LinkedIn and removed much of the information from my profile, and I advise everyone do the same.