LinkedIn has officially entered its ‘cringe era,’ and it’s working

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LinkedIn, the virtual business lunch-esque destination where networking happens over mixed greens and a smorgasbord of job postings and candidates are hired between the main course and a gluttony of career advice, is switching up its menu, so to speak.

Since launching in 2002, the professional networking site has become a career requisite for anyone looking for a new job, to boost their professional clout, or expand their network. It’s the place where jobs are posted, new jobs are cheered and exalted, and career advice for accomplishing that five- and 10-year plan is doled out in spades.

Compared to the likes of Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter, LinkedIn always felt like the buttoned-up older cousin—the one who gets into a better college, who your mother is always asking you to be more like. It’s always been the professional’s platform and, to be frank, kind of boring. And we accepted it all the same.

But LinkedIn has ushered in a change over the past few years. The networking platform, a delineation the Microsoft-owned site is keen to maintain, has welcomed looser conversation and engagement—a more social approach. LinkedIn began this embrace pre-COVID, but doubled down as the lines between work and life blurred and people increasingly shared more personal experiences during the pandemic.

The unintended result has given way to a common refrain: What’s going on with LinkedIn?

To some, LinkedIn is entering its cringe era. The site isn’t to blame per se, but as it’s played faster and looser with the “professional” in professional networking, some users’ posts and content has become arguably unhinged. Exhibit A: The company leader who posted about the death of a colleague saying, “Phil died doing what he loved… networking and promoting our brand.”

Scrolling LinkedIn nowadays often leaves us questioning what exactly we’re supposed to be doing and posting there. Do we write 200-word posts detailing the specifics of our layoff? Do we spill coworker drama? Talk about a personal trauma like a parent dying or chronic illness diagnosis—relating it to work, obviously? Do we say “screw it” to dating apps and just slide into LinkedIn DMs to shoot our shot?

Well, yeah—maybe?

Professional networking evolution

LinkedIn will likely always be the place people run to when they’re fed up at their current job, have just been laid off, or are entering the workforce. But as the workplace and our relationship to it changed over the past three years, LinkedIn wants to be a place where conversations about work, around work, or that used to happen at work take place. A veritable virtual water cooler.

Perhaps there’s never been a better time for a social media network dedicated to work to thrive. The Great Resignation, quiet quitting, remote and hybrid work, and what seems to be a never-ending run of layoffs pushing tens of thousands of workers back into the job market have given way to even more takes and opinions. In all scenarios, LinkedIn is arguably a great place to hang out when you’re thinking about your career. 

“LinkedIn is a vibrant and trusted community where professionals can have great conversations, and build their audience in a relevant professional context with direct access to brands, other professionals, and institutions,” LinkedIn editor-in-chief Dan Roth wrote in an email to Fortune. “The difference is we are not about creation for the sake of entertainment.”

The evolution of LinkedIn is almost natural considering so many of us stopped going into the office in 2020, yet at the same time suddenly had so much more to say about work. But the job search and professional development and networking aspect is still critical to the platform: Some 52 million users come to LinkedIn every week to look for jobs and submit roughly 230 million job applications a month, the company said.

Still, no one can deny it’s becoming more like other social media apps—but it’s actually working out. LinkedIn says it sees more than 8 million posts and comments across the site daily, and has experienced a 40% increase in engagement with content from July 2021 to 2022.

Last year, LinkedIn doubled down, rebranding its own breed of influencer and investing more in supporting “creators” on the site. It also added more video features, which arguably any good social media platform would need in 2023. It says the adoption of new tools like newsletters has prompted more people to share their insights, up 10 times year-over-year.

“If we can foster sharing of ideas and insights, we can help each other be more productive, successful, and inspired, we can in turn, unlock more opportunities,” Roth wrote in his email. “Oftentimes, that knowledge and sharing of ideas is informed by our lived experiences—which yes, includes comical tidbits.

“Those personal anecdotes are a jumping off point in furthering the conversation,” he continued. “Your authenticity, humor, and personal experience in a professional context can help you connect on a deeper and more relatable level with your network.”

LinkedIn’s cringe era

That said, LinkedIn can’t simply police what people post and engage with. And, like the rest of the internet, people don’t always hit the nail on the head.

Shortly after graduating college in 2019, John, an engineer working in Harrisburg, Penn., couldn’t help but notice insufferable content popping up on LinkedIn didn’t fit with the platform he originally signed up for to land a job and grow his network.

“I see LinkedIn as just a general networking tool, but people have definitely started doing a lot of virtue signaling on the platform,” John tells Fortune. “And I know some people are just doing it for attention, obviously… but it’s definitely getting more, I don’t know, people are posting things you’d see on Facebook a lot of the time.”

He created the LinkedInLunatics subreddit in October 2019, which has grown to more than 230,000 members who post about the increasingly odd content that’s come to populate the professional—with a pinch of social—platform. There’s also a Twitter account, The State of LinkedIn, that trades in the same meme-like content.

You’ve undoubtedly seen the kind of posts that make their way to LinkedInLunatics: hyper productive hustle culture mentality, seemingly misplaced virtue signaling (i.e. the crying CEO), posts ushering in a sort of Facebook-ification of LinkedIn, stories of professional lessons learned from kids, jokes about those posts of lessons learned from kids.

The most popular LinkedIn post featured on the subreddit was that of a man who claimed to have cooked raw chicken in a hotel coffee pot because the room didn’t have a kitchenette, and he wanted to save his company money on his business trip. It, too, turned out to be an oddly placed joke that some mistook as genuine.

The subreddit “grew exponentially pretty quickly,” John says. “It’s pretty indicative of how popular LinkedIn is in the corporate world and people’s awareness of the crazy stuff people are posting on there.”

Rise of the LinkedIn influencer

While LinkedIn can’t control what users post, it offers tools to report posts and hide certain content from people’s feeds. It also invested in its own influencer platform in 2021, hiring some 60 creator managers as part of the company’s $25 million creator fund investment. The goal was to help influencers and creators on the site by guiding content, providing coaching and mentorship.

“Creating content on LinkedIn is about creating opportunity, for yourselves and others… Anyone who has a story to tell and is driving professional conversations about the world of work can be a creator on LinkedIn,” former global head of community at LinkedIn Andrei Santalo wrote in a blogpost announcing the fund.

Since LinkedIn pushed all its chips in, creators on the platform say they’re pulling in millions of dollars a year doling out advice and affirmations on how to be successful in business. No wonder there are more than 14 million members with creator mode turned on, according to LinkedIn. 

One such creator, Taylor Offer, the co-founder of e-commerce apparel company Feat Clothing, previously told Fortune he generates roughly $4,000 every time he posts to his more than 140,000 followers on LinkedIn. His profile speaks to the newer age of LinkedIn—a mix of jokes and oddly placed anecdotes rather than a 101 course in plotting that traditional five-year plan.

LinkedIn clearly looked at the landscape and its place in it and concluded there was a need to evolve, shift its focus a bit, and diversify. That’s what most businesses do: Hey, even Facebook has WhatsApp and Instagram and is toiling over the Metaverse.

“LinkedIn has gotten pretty far away from what it started out as, and I think most people are just trying to generate clicks and attention to their profiles,” John says. “They have a pretty good monopoly on the networking service… it would be pretty hard to simply stop using LinkedIn at this point.”

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