Why is LinkedIn so cringe?
By Trung Phan
The answer is in its business model and algorithm.
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Today, we’ll breakdown a question everyone has asked at least once in their life: why is the LinkedIn newsfeed so cringe?
How to actually use LinkedIn
Thoughts on Bob Saget (RIP)
***UPDATE: After receiving feedback on this article, I wrote a follow-up piece on all the former LinkedIn employees that have gone on to C-Suite roles in tech (The LinkedIn Mafia).
Why LinkedIn? Just, why?
One of the funniest running jokes on Twitter is people trolling cringey LinkedIn newsfeed content: humble brags, faux inspiration, hustle porn, buzzwords galore and more.
A Twitter search for “linkedin cringe” returns an endless scroll of hilarity:
Here’s a representative tweet that blew up last week. Someone posted a photo of a “resilient” tree, which prompted a perfect response that notched 430k+ likes: “Gonna be hell when LinkedIn finds out about this tree.”
Sure enough, someone scanned LinkedIn and found some cringey hell:
What is in the DNA of LinkedIn that leads to such predictably cringe content?
To answer the question, I read a bunch of forums, articles and great insights from the LinkedIn Engineering Blog. I think the cringe is due to 3 factors:
The personality: What LinkedIn asks you to be?
The customer: Who is actually paying LinkedIn?
The algorithm: What drives engagement?
My least favourite version of Trung is “CV Trung”. By this, I mean the way I write about myself and career on my resume.
Why? Because CV Trung is a knob.
Here are some actual bullet points from my most up-to-date resume, circa 2019: (comments in bold)
“CFA Charter-holder, passed all 3 exams on the first attempt” (no one cares)
“Professional working proficiency in Vietnamese” (not even close)
“Leveraged background in finance to lead a cross-functional team that developed machine-learning analytics tools” (dude, STFU)
Humans don’t talk like this. Half of this isn’t even true!
What is going on?
Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman has the answer: in a book called The Presentation of Self in Every Day Life, Goffman posits that every person goes through life wearing many “masks”, like an actor in a theatre play.
Most people are different personalities at work vs. home vs. happy hour. People wear these different masks to impress or avoid embarrassment with different audiences.
Back to LinkedIn. It’s your online resume and directly tied to your identity.
The setup forces everyone on the site to basically wear the professional “CV mask” of their personality.
Bland. Buzzwords. Inoffensive. A little exaggeration. Self-promotional (but not too much). Desperate to impress.
As a professional social network, LinkedIn has the cringe built in. The platform also prompts cringey engagement activity like:
Please <click button> to endorse <person> for being good at <skill>
It is <person> one year workversary please <congratulate>
This is not how normal people interact! I’ve literally never uttered the words “workvesary” out of my mouth (and have no idea what it sounds like).
Case in point:
Whenever someone strays from the “CV Mask” and gives an honest take, it resonates:
Having said all that, LinkedIn’s mission is to “connect the world’s professionals to make them more productive and successful”. As we’ll see, the site has been able to do that for many of its 800m+ users…cringe or no cringe.
LinkedIn has turned into a pretty monster business: annual revenue is $10B+, which compares very favourably with other social networks like Twitter (~$5B), Snap (~$4B) and Pinterest (~$2-3B).
Microsoft — which acquired LinkedIn for $26B in 2016 — doesn’t break out segment revenue, but LinkedIn’s last public filing gives a snapshot:
Talent Solutions (65% of sales): Recruiters and employers pay for tools to attract, recruit and hire people. Also, this segment sells learning and development tools.
Premium Subscriptions (17%): Users pay to unlock all the wild LinkedIn features like better search, messaging, connecting outside of your network and — my personal fave — seeing who creeped your profile.
Marketing Solutions (18%): Display ads and sponsored posts in the newsfeed.
Today, ads may be closer to 25-30% of the revenue mix, but the platform still caters primarily to recruiters and HR departments.
Fadeke Adegbuyi put it perfectly in her must-read article “LinkedIn’s Alternate Universe”:
Every platform has its royalty. On Instagram it’s influencers, foodies, and photographers. Twitter belongs to the founders, journalists, celebrities, and comedians. On LinkedIn, it’s hiring managers, recruiters, and business owners who hold power on the platform and have the ear of the people. The depravity of a platform where HR Managers are the rockstars speaks for itself.
There are at least 3 knock-on effects for the LinkedIn newsfeed based on having HR and Recruiters as the top dogs:
Incentivizes humble bragging: Users (especially job-seekers) broadcast all their wins — no matter how small — to catch the eye of a prospective employer. The wins are usually wrapped in some fake humility or BS lesson or hero’s journey (“I failed first, but then…”) so as to not come off as a complete egomaniac.
Rise of faux gurus: AKA LinkedIn Influencers, because employers need to keep them workers motivated…and nothing motivates quite like a well-placed LinkedIn post with some famous quote taken completely out of context.
Cringe-proof: Remember, ads only make up 20-30% of LinkedIn’s business. Even if the newsfeed were to become unusable because of a biblical flood of “I’m humbled to announce…” posts, the Talent Solutions gravy train will keep chugging along.
Here is content you will only ever see on LinkedIn: a person announces a new internship opportunity by noting that his favourite color matches that of a consulting firm’s logo 😭😭😭.
This one is just gold:
As with any social network, LinkedIn spends a lot of resources optimizing its feed.
What is it optimizing for, though?
In a 2018 presentation, Bonnie Barrilleaux — a LinkedIn data scientist — says users derive value from the newsfeed when they feel heard, can start conversations and are able to swap advice.
The content we see today is a result of some interesting developments to drive these outcomes (which are well-documented on the LinkedIn Engineering Blog):
1) New site design
In 2017, LinkedIn rolled out a desktop redesign that made the newsfeed more prominent and put “conversations and content at the center”.
The new look created a canvas for professional types to create media. LinkedIn also poured resources into making the site a home for more thought leadership publishing (eg Bill Gates, Richard Branson).
These changes boosted engagement.
2) The rise of Broetry
Enter Josh Fechter.
A tech consultant who started typing up super viral LinkedIn posts that took on a very specific form. As described by Fenwick Media, the content was cringey motivation and business hot takes written in single sentences, line by line.
You definitely know the template:
The format and content combination earned a truly incredible name: broetry (aka bro + poetry).
Fechter figured a hack based on how LinkedIn posts appear in the feed: a body of text shows the first sentence with a “read more” hyperlink. Using clicky first sentences (aka “like-bait”), Fechter sucked users into his broems.
The LinkedIn algorithm was rewarding the “read more” clicks as quality content. Soon, LinkedIn was flooded by broems and it forced the platform to update the algo (it also banned Fechter).
Between the broems and celebrity thinkfluencers (Gates, Branson), regular LinkedIn users were getting buried in the feed.
3) Making the right connections
Per Barrilleaux, the like-bait spread on the platform because the algo was working too well. The problem was that LinkedIn was rewarding the wrong metrics (“read more” clicks, likes).
The next algorithm update optimized for different metrics:
Prioritizing connections: LinkedIn started re-weighting the value of a like or share (they are not all crated equal). If I post something and my mom — who is in my network — likes it, her single like is more valuable to me than the same like given to the Richard Branson influencer account (thanks mom).
Dwell time: Time spent on a post is a stronger signal than only a like.
Real engagement: Comments and replies (especially from your network) are also strong signals.
The algo change
Now, take the first 2 cringe factors we talked about — personality and customer — and layer on the algo.
What do you get? The cringe posts we all see today and love to hate:
Why do humblebrags for new jobs and achievements do well? Because your direct connections are engaging with the post.
Why do long-winded faux inspirational stories about nothing do well? Because suckers that read them are boosting dwell time.
Why does everyone ask ridiculous questions (aka “agree”)? Because comments and replies are like manna from heaven.
When it comes to the cringey content, the LinkedIn algo is doing its job! Too well!
The one saving grace is that LinkedIn also has shitposters trying to right the universe:
And a special shoutout to Alex Cohen, who has turned long-form LinkedIn shitposting into an art:
What if LinkedIn is actually the best social network?
While LinkedIn is definitely cringe, every social network has issues: Facebook (misinformation), Twitter (trolls), Instagram (fake) etc. Compared to these other platforms, “cringe” is probably not the most pressing concern.
Alex Kantrowitz makes the case that LinkedIn is actually the only “good social network.”
Many of the LinkedIn features I covered create a much healthier social dynamic:
Accountability: People are linked to their real names and — in the name of “professionalism” — act civil (if somewhat cringey).
Taking down clickbait: As the Broetry example shows, LinkedIn is willing to stunt virality in the name of healthier engagement.
Business model: LinkedIn doesn’t rely on ads. It makes a majority of its money from subscriptions, which is a more aligned model with users (eg. LinkedIn doesn’t have to shove outrage content down our throats to capture attention).
I agree with everything Kantrowitz lays out. But — almost certainly to my mental detriment — have zero intention of spending real time on LinkedIn.
CV Trung — and his “professional working proficiency in Vietnamese” — can kick rocks.
**UPDATE: Received this DM from a former LinkedIn employee that read the article.
How to actually use LinkedIn
Speaking of LinkedIn, I stumbled on this quality post from one Charles Lee last week: “I was rejected by 86 companies before I was rejected by my 87th.”
As good citizens of the internet, we have to find ways to reward quality shitposting…so I blasted out Lee’s LinkedIn post with a plea that someone hire this Vancouver-based wordsmith.
Damir Hot — CEO of Canalyst — saw my tweet and slid into Lee’s LinkedIn DMs. I can report that they plan to meet.
In the event that an internship (or more) is offered, I will waive my customary 0% placement fee. This is a long way of saying that I should probably become a LinkedIn recruiter (or, at least, influencer).
RIP Bob Saget
The 65-year old comedian died last week in his sleep (from either a stroke or heart attack it looks like).
Growing up, I watched a ton of Full House and America’s Funniest Home Video. Shortly after leaving Full House in 1995, Saget made the most shocking film cameo I can remember.
The wholesome family actor was cast in Dave Chappelle’s 1998 comedy Half-Baked in a short role titled “Cocaine Addict” and dropped the most out-of-character film line: “Marijuana is not a drug. I used to s**k d**k for coke. Now that’s an addiction. You ever s**k some d**k for marijuana?”
As I would later find out, Saget is a super well-known dirty joke teller. His 2014 bio is even titled Dirty Daddy: The Chronicles of a Family Man Turned Filthy Comedian (he also played a very dirty version of himself in HBO’s Entourage).
This dichotomy — of a family-friendly actor and hysterically dirty joke teller — was a common headline reporting his death
Saget would tell Howard Stern of his double comedic life in 1998:
“I’m like filthy right now … All I want to do is curse and fall down, because I’ve been on 8 o’clock television so long. It’s like comedy Tourette’s. That’s what I’m like, though. I was even filthy while I would do the shows [Full House and America’s Funniest Home Videos]. I would get onstage and curse and stuff and people’s hair would, like, burn. ‘Children of the Corn,’ their eyes would roll back. ‘It’s Michelle’s Daddy, no!’”
The multi-faceted career is right out of Ervin Goffman’s mask theory. Saget was a high-order comedic talent with many different audiences. And by all accounts, a decent person. RIP.