When I first signed up for a LinkedIn account the summer after my junior year of college, I was deeply fascinated and also horrified that there was actually a site where people posted their academic and professional accolades for the entire Internet to see.
Of course, my fascination and horror prompted me to go ahead and participate in the insane charade of online self-promotion and networking as well: I made a profile, added a photo that was the closest thing I had to a headshot, and decorated my profile with all of my poetry prizes, boring college-y internships, and extracurricular activities from years past. I was ready to prove my worth.
What ensued in the coming weeks was even more bizarre: I found myself getting LinkedIn requests from all of these people I peripherally knew from high school and college: people I’d been in a forgettable seminar with or had once sat next to in the freshman dining hall. After one fleeting convo over dining hall froyo, there we were, networking digitally on LinkedIn.
I remember consciously asking myself, “Does this person really want to network with me?” and quickly answering on my behalf: “Definitely not.” After all, I was still in college and had no professional credentials whatsoever, other than a smattering of not-impressive unpaid internships in fields I didn’t even want to pursue. According to my LinkedIn, I was a staunch environmentalist ready to head into the world of non-profits. (Not true.) There was no reason anyone would want to network with me. So why did people want to join my professional network?
On one level, I have no fucking clue—it’s insane. On another, there’s no real need for an explanation, as that is precisely what LinkedIn is for, why it exists. The only reason I made a profile for myself to begin with was because I knew there was actually a platform out there where people were offering up their professional credentials as stalking material. I had to be a part of it, too.
And of course, I too engage in idle-LinkedIn activity now and again (read: frequently!?) much like my peers past and present. If I see someone I know, whether from school, work, or one-off freelance projects, I (unconsciously) think, “Of course I want to request to add you to my professional network.” It is shameless—and perhaps that’s just the way it is, or even the way it should be. Let me remind us once again: the entire platform is built on an assumption that all users will accept their unapologetic desire to size each other up based on concrete markers of success, achievement, status—the number of members in our professional network, whether or not we have a Premium account, how many LinkedIn articles we’ve posted recently.
Let me be clear: I don’t mean to dismiss LinkedIn entirely. I get that LinkedIn primarily exists as a pragmatic platform for HR recruiters to find talent, for jobseekers to find recruiters and open positions, for me to ask that random person from my freshman year seminar who now works at Google if she would mind “connecting” me to someone on her “team” to get me a six-figure salary job in corporate communications, stuff like that. And for that it is a useful service. But TBH, much of the way I use LinkedIn is highly un-pragmatic, at least when it comes to my career.
I remember asking my dad once, “Why didn’t you friend me back on LinkedIn?” and he straightforwardly responded by saying simply that one does not “friend” someone else on LinkedIn. You ask them to join your professional network. But I would argue that many folks my age (~25-30) use LinkedIn in a pseudo-Facebook-y way. What I mean is this: I unthinkingly ask to add people to “my network” on LinkedIn if I know them even the slightest bit, even if I’ve met them once. Because: that’s exactly what I do on Facebook (that’s the world we live in and it’s weird). But also, #yolo, e.g. why the fuck not? What if they end up doing something really rad and recruiting me to do it with them? That person from seminar might turn out to be the next President of the United States. OF COURSE I WANT THEM IN MY PROFESSIONAL NETWORK.
And yet, in comparing LinkedIn to Facebook, I realize that on LinkedIn, you can see people’s profiles even if you’re not “friends” (JK!). On Facebook, however, one needs to “friend” another in order to stalk their shit.
Truth be told, I often don’t add people to my network who I “stalk” on LinkedIn. Instead, I often gather Facebook-intel as fodder to determine who I want to check out on LinkedIn. In summary, my most frequent activity on LinkedIn is trolling people I don’t know, who are the significant others of ANY INDIVIDUAL EVER IN MY HISTORY who I’ve found attractive. I’m not talking about LinkedIn stalking the current girlfriend of my serious ex-boyfriend. I’m talking about the girlfriend of the guy I thought was cute for a second in my physics class, and who I tried to flirt with (unsuccessfully) via text a couple of times. Because I find out about these relationships on Facebook, I am able to gather material. When I feel struck with an acidic pang of inadequacy, a la, “Wait, why didn’t he want to flirt back via text when we were 16 and in physics class together?” I take to LinkedIn as a way to size up what the current partner has that I don’t.
y = mx + b
[aka: what i remember from physics!]
This behavior is totally deranged, supremely narcissistic, and completely unproductive. But I also feel like it’s important (and productive, actually) to acknowledge to ourselves how we really use social media. No I don’t use LinkedIn to find jobs or contacts for freelance writing. No editor would ever want to talk to me on LinkedIn, and I can’t even imagine responding to a LinkedIn message. If people want to talk to me, they should go to my website. (With all that said, I’d be down to make actual professional connections on LinkedIn).
But yes: I use LinkedIn to see what my high school nemesis is doing with her life, or what her major was in college and when she decided to work in publicity for a non-profit. After all, she made out several times with my crush from 7th grade. I need to be able to make sense of her credentials.
The punch line here, I think, is that the more “mainstream” channels of social media—especially Facebook and Instagram—breed this kind of culture of comparison and one upsmanship, conscious or not. We are constantly constructing avatars of ourselves online—from the relationships we’re in, to the food we eat to the vacations we take—and we are, quite literally, sharing them for the world to see. We want others to compare themselves to us, because that’s what we’re doing.
And so, to me, LinkedIn is perhaps the most fascinating platform because it renders all of those dynamics explicit. My motto on LinkedIn is like, YES I AM LOOKING AT YOU TO SEE YOUR CREDENTIALS (And, by extension, YES I KNOW THAT YOU WILL THUS LOOK AT MY CREDENTIALS AND WE WILL COMPARE OURSELVES TO EACH OTHER.) It’s awful, but also full of awe (awe-full).
Sure, I think it’s probably a good idea for all of us to scale back on social media. But insofar as we, as a culture, are addicted to it, and the fact that capitalism today wouldn’t survive without it, the best thing we can do is be as conscious as we can about why we use social media in the ways we do. Recognizing that I compare myself to people on LinkedIn doesn’t make the habit better, more righteous, or healthy for me as an individual, but it provides interesting material for recursive inquiry, and self-examination. Plus, it’s also kind of hilarious, and a genuinely provocative jumping off point for conversations about ~*the zeitgeist.*~ The only way out is through, and talking about all the weird shit we do online is probably a good way to actually open up to people. And to quote LinkedIn’s corporate slogan, “Relationships matter.”