Shameless Work Influencers Are the Bane of LinkedIn

The professional networking platform showcases everything gone wrong with the attention economy

A little over a year ago, as the severity of the Covid-19 pandemic began to sink in, people began losing their jobs. The losses were swift and historic, with a quarter of adults in the U.S. reporting they or someone in their household had been laid off by October 2020.

And while the hardest hit were those in the service industry — cooks, waiters, bartenders, cleaners, and hotel staff, to name a few — large numbers of “knowledge workers” also found themselves unemployed. College seniors, many of whom had hoped to begin careers in entry-level roles in fields like marketing or sales, were faced with a dispiriting job market full of better qualified and desperate applicants. For many of these knowledge workers, their job search took them to one place: LinkedIn.

LinkedIn is the social network for “professionals,” a term that in practice mostly refers to white-collar workers — people who sit (or stand) at desks and whose tools are generally of the software variety.

For context, I was a pretty infrequent LinkedIn user until about a year ago. Then, due to a new job, I ended up getting immersed in the platform, following influencers, connecting with acquaintances, and generally absorbing the milieu of the site. Thus, I joined the millions of workers whose paths led them to LinkedIn last year.

It’s worth asking what they found there.

The first thing you need to understand about LinkedIn is that you will either find it immensely appealing or achingly unbearable, depending on your views regarding social media, attention, work, and life in general.

Many people love it; many people (myself included) hate it. Often for the same reasons.

Off the bat, LinkedIn looks like a job-seeker’s paradise. The job search algorithm is solid and, at least in my experience, turned up plenty of relevant jobs. Recruiters can easily find and reach out to people who match a job description on the site, and by keeping a profile up-to-date and “active” (I’ll get to that bit later), you’ll probably end up with at least an occasional message from a recruiter in your inbox.

But start scrolling through your newsfeed, and you may begin to get an inkling that something is rotten in the state of the modern job search.

The LinkedIn newsfeed quickly reveals itself as a vast wasteland, a scrolling experience almost entirely filled with marketing gurus, salespeople talking sales, and recruiters and “career coaches” offering the same job search tips over and over. Even if you’re only connected with your acquaintances, the algorithm ensures that many of the posts your connections like or comment on will show up in your newsfeed. Thus, even one or two connections who are enamored with influencers or motivational quotes can wreak havoc with your experience.

Basically, the LinkedIn newsfeed is the place for working professionals to gather and network, look for jobs, exchange advice, and reassure themselves their careers are not just a meaningless charade.

It’s also very weird.

An Army of Professionals on Social Media

As you spend more time on LinkedIn, it’s hard not to notice just how strange the combination of professionalism and social media actually is. There’s an oil and water vibe going on here — the two concepts don’t really mix — and the ensuing tension produces some oddball “content,” as they say.

Professionalism, in the old-school sense, entails holding some things back from your colleagues because, crucially, “co-worker” is not synonymous with “close friend” or “family member.” But social media demands access to that inner sanctum; the ephemeral nature of content creates a bias toward oversharing. Each post is a little mayfly in the morning light, doomed to perish by next sunrise. If you want to keep eyeballs on your content, your profile, your personal brand, then you have to keep creating content regularly, until you quit or die.

And banal, corporatized posts will only get you a tiny hit of attention on LinkedIn. For a slug of the good stuff, you need to get personal. Emotional. Authentic.

People on LinkedIn really like these words, mostly because they’re marketers, salespeople, or recruiters, and their entire job revolves around deploying them all to one degree or another.

This is, not incidentally, why these types of people tend to absolutely thrive on the site. There are a lot of influencers who have reached the heights of LinkedIn stardom with nothing more than a deck of cards, each bearing some astoundingly banal platitude masquerading as received wisdom from the workplace gods. Every day they flip over a new card and, without an ounce of shame, tell you about that time they worked really hard — until they got physically ill and figured out Family is the most important thing! The authenticity of it all is sublime.

However, to really make a name for yourself on the site, you’ll also need to get “vulnerable.”

And by “being vulnerable,” what people on LinkedIn really mean is sharing something startlingly personal which elicits an emotional reaction from other people on LinkedIn. This is not a novel social media tactic for earning likes, but when it happens on LinkedIn, it leads to some bizarre spectacles. I’ve witnessed a grown man announce his own divorce to thousands of ostensibly professional connections, thereby ensuring that tens of thousands of people would see the post (thanks to the algorithm) once the likes and comments started rolling in.

And everyone applauded him!

Anyone who commented that this was strange, self-pitying, or even childish behavior was treated to a torrent of anger and outrage. How dare anyone suggest we have an inner, private life that is degraded by sharing it via the same medium we use to update everyone on a product launch? How dare anyone be so cynical?

But consider, for a moment, how much attention this post got him. It’s become something of a truism to say that we live in an attention economy, but the consequences of it permeate nearly every aspect of our lives. The savvy, ambitious LinkedIn user simply finds what will garner the most attention — and then posts it.

Seeing this dynamic play out over and over, I began to wonder, who is really the cynical one here? Is it me, spotting ploys for attention in every LinkedIn post? Or is it the newly divorced marketer, making sure no part of the buffalo goes unused in his never-ending battle to maintain other users’ attention?

Why LinkedIn Is Overrun by Influencers

All of this begs the question: Why? Why do LinkedIn influencers (large and small, established and wannabe) put themselves through this never-ending posting regimen? What’s in it for them if they control the flow of attention on the site?

The answer, as some of you probably well know, is that they need your attention in order to sell you something. Again, this is a classic tactic on social media, but it’s reached its purest form on LinkedIn, where everyone is already interacting under their “work” identities. So you find salespeople teaching other salespeople how to sell, marketers teaching other marketers how to market, and life coaches, I presume, teaching other people how to live, ad infinitum.

This aspect of LinkedIn — that it’s basically a giant haven for scammers of the “professional” persuasion — is not generally mentioned in polite company. It would be unseemly to suggest that site is basically a writhing mass of opportunists, a vast circle jerk in the cloud.

And look, I’m not saying you can’t find someone to teach you a useful skill, or two, on LinkedIn. But I am saying that teaching people how to do something online is often much more lucrative than actually doing that thing yourself. All it takes is positioning yourself as a bonafide Successful and then constantly talking about what it is that made you such a Successful. Then offer your best tips or guaranteed process and put it behind a paywall.

Voila! Passive income.

In a perfect world, none of this would have anything to do with actually getting a job on LinkedIn. You wouldn’t feel obliged to do much more than list your work history and what you’re good at, ask for some recommendations, and get down to applying.

But the intimate connection between a user’s newsfeed and public profile means that getting hired via LinkedIn has, inevitably, become more about getting attention than being qualified for a given job.

Simply put, this is what happens when you merge social media and personal branding with job hunting. As with all social media, those with the greatest talent for self-promotion (some might say the most shameless) will be the winners. And, sadly, they drag everyone else along in their wake. You may not want to send direct messages to hiring managers, post meaningless drivel to “move the conversation forward,” or make relentlessly positive comments on other people’s posts, but alas, these are the unspoken rules of performative LinkedIn.

In a society where work is placed on a pedestal, health insurance is tied to full-time employment, and higher education leaves new graduates deeply in debt, not participating seems like an iffy proposition, financially speaking.

So, perhaps you decide that becoming active on LinkedIn isn’t selling out or capitulating and that it doesn’t signify anything but the desire to get a job. You certainly wouldn’t be the first. Fortunately, there are roughly one billion users on LinkedIn who can show you how to optimize your LinkedIn profile.

However, I will boil their advice down for you (for free!):

A good LinkedIn profile shows other people that you understand the performative nature of the site — and that you’re willing to play along.

A good LinkedIn profile shows other people that you can spot when a game is being played, figure out the rules, and choose to start playing.

Now, if you feel some internal resistance playing the game — if something inside you is repelled by the idea — that’s okay. The LinkedIn influencers have heard of this problem before, and they have some good advice for you.

“Get over it.”

It’s a response that comes in many forms. Some people will tell you that’s just the way things are now — adapt or kiss your career goodbye. They assume, by default, that because your “career” is what pays the bills and keeps a roof over your head, that it’s maintenance is worth any humiliation.

Others will tell you, “It gets easier,” meaning that relentless self-promotion won’t feel so bad after you do it for awhile. Basically, if you keep submerging that part of your soul that cries out in anguish when you advertise yourself online, eventually it stops struggling for air.

Another line of defense: you’re always marketing or selling yourself. Going on a date? That’s selling, baby!

This speaks more to the absolute poverty of the average LinkedIn guru’s inner life than anything else, but it’s worth reckoning with, mostly because this type of thinking is everywhere. Yes, we can imagine, the joys and complexities of meeting, getting to know, and falling in love with another person can be reduced to market-speak. After all, what are all human relations but transactions between two savvy sales reps?

Underlying it all is a cheerful acceptance of the human spirit as a commodity — something that can be bought and, therefore, should be cultivated, harvested, and marketed online.

And if you, like me, hold different views, then you may be in for a rough time on the site. However, I can’t necessarily recommend you make a principled stand, hold your head high, and ignore LinkedIn altogether.

As I mentioned, there are strong incentives to be on LinkedIn related to employment and, you know, making money. In fact, LinkedIn recently announced it’s getting into the freelance game, competing with the likes of UpWork and Fiverr. For many creative types, as the platform expands into gig work, the incentive to be active, brand themselves (with all the self-harm that implies) and produce lots of content for the algorithm will become even stronger.

I think perhaps the only way to “successfully” use the site is to hold your nose, do what you have to in order to get a job, and then forget about it as long as you’re gainfully employed.

I know that’s the opposite of what any good LinkedIn influencer would advise, but that’s kind of the whole point.

Reader, writer, content provider. Fan of hand-made guitars, racket-based sports, and houseplants. You can find me in St. Louie.

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