Re-imagining LinkedIn

Jun 29, 2020

LinkedIn is the kid everyone is forced to play with on the playground. Everyone know he’s a sharp kid, skilled in his ways, but he forces others to play by his rules, and that makes the game less fun for everyone.

While this kid’s parents (Reid & Satya) might think “how wonderful it is that everyone is playing with my kid,” they don’t see how miserable everyone is.

But this kid is smart and can change the rules of the game for the better. He just needs to listen to other kids and understand how they want to play. If he can do that, the entire game can change completely.

This essay is about understanding the game that LinkedIn has made us play, and what it would look like if we could shift the rules to make it more fun.

Reimagining LinkedIn requires us to look at the future of work, the role of the individual, and the work that makes us happy. LinkedIn is ready for this revolution.

A reimagined Linked should flow from 3 premises:

  1. Users’ experience comes first.
  2. Learning in streams.
  3. All interconnected with content.

In this essay, I want to go over what’s broken about LinkedIn, the future of work, and how LinkedIn can become loved. Seriously.

Let’s get to it.

The Root of the Problem

The surface issues on LinkedIn stem from an outdated philosophy of work, of careers, and of networking. These are the roots of not only a broken product but a broken approach to work itself.

In this section, I want to discuss where LinkedIn has left its users behind and left a vast chasm of unmet needs.

LinkedIn might have high engagement metrics, but they don’t show positive feelings from its users. There’s a reason why alternative networks are popping up that tackle this challenge differently, and they are growing fast. Companies like BlueCrew and Jobcase, even though focused on blue-collar jobs, are doing a much better job at understanding the needs of its users.

(Yes, I know they are not strict social networks.)

What’s the point of network effects if everyone dislikes your product and feel forced to use it anyways?

So what are the broken assumptions about work, career, and networking baked into LinkedIn? Let’s understand them first before we see how they manifest.

Assumptions about Work

Let’s try to understand how LinkedIn stacks up with the future of work. Whether it empowers the user, or it doesn’t.

Future of Work LinkedIn
Blend of professional & personal work; uncredentialed Chronological professional work & credentials at the forefront
Project based Titled based
Multi-dimensional talents, skills, abilities One job title, one identity
Continuous Learning based Credential based
Tapping into new networks & opportunities All about existing networks
Sharing Spammy wall of text
Worker in the driver’s seat Spammy, self-promotional experiences

LinkedIn currently favors you to have one job title, present one idea of who you are. You optimize your headline, your description, and your education, work experiences, and certificates to align with one thing. LinkedIn experts tell you to build this one-dimensional profile as well if you want to “network” well and get hired. It is about optimizing for keywords. As a result, you are stuck in a tricky position to build a strong profile about what you’ve done.

The Future of Work (and even the present) is where people will have many job titles, different functions, different roles altogether. Careers adapt and change. It requires that you be able to present a multi-dimensional picture of who you are to different people. You shouldn’t have to be just a marketing, or a sales, or a developer, or a strategy person. You want the ability to present yourself fully. LinkedIn doesn’t have this yet.

LinkedIn currently favors chronological professional experiences. But in the future of work, your personal, volunteer, side gig, side projects, and businesses will be just as relevant. The chronology will be less critical. LinkedIn doesn’t allow you to portray this accurately.

The future of work also requires constant learning, sharing, and more organic networking based on interests and contributions. LinkedIn currently favors formal credentials, and taking courses on Lynda in its “Pro” account.

The future of work requires that people learn organically from each other and contribute to the conversation (dialectics as a form of learning). This is a significantly different model of networking altogether.

LinkedIn’s wall or stream of messages is currently haphazard and doesn’t allow for this form of dialectical learning. Nor does it allow for forming connections and networks based learning. Instead, it focuses on spammy or dreadfully boring industry topic PR type sharing or generalities that verge on fluff pieces.

The future of work will put the individual in the driver’s seat. She will seek and carve out opportunities for herself, not in the hands of recruiters and organizations. There is a place for this, but LinkedIn’s current system is about either finding jobs or nothing at all. Even though you can pick different job titles or work arrangements, the costs associated with posting (and I don’t just mean financial expenses) on the recruiter side don’t allow for non-traditional work offers to flow freely. This means gigs, side projects, finding co-founders, etc. On top of it all, it costs people even to send InMail messages.

Finally, the future of work requires much more organic networking. It requires people to dip in and out of their interests, join the conversation when it makes sense, and connect with people in degrees. LinkedIn currently only allows either a direct connection, a soft follow (not available on all profiles), or nothing. This is all about learning in public and forming connections based on that.

In reality, this isn’t even the future of work. It is happening right now!

All of these things create much friction in the user experience. These points of friction make using LinkedIn a miserable experience.

Let’s understand how.

Broken Way of Relating to Others

While the network of people you know can help you with your professional career, there is no organizing principle behind how you relate to people on LinkedIn. All connections are alike. This gives rise to some of the most tedious features on the site.

First, it muddies the experience of the feed. Say you are not a lawyer or have anything to do with the legal field at all. But your friend Michael is a lawyer. Michael always posts updates about the legal field. This is makes his posts on your feed irrelevant. You cannot focus on the things you wish to learn, grow in, etc. Unfollowing people is not enough. What should have been a rich source of news, articles, help in things that matter to you instead blurs into a mix of sameness.

The model of networking that LinkedIn replicates. Credit: Unsplash Product School

Second, it gives rise to virtue signaling and bland content. The LinkedIn feed is like a display of confusing billboards where people are don’t know what to share. This is why we get either boring industry news about completely unrelated fields on our timeline from friends or useless posts about the inspiring wisdom of billionaires with #so #many #hashtags #to #make #it #noticeable #to #others. If people don’t know who or what they’re posting to, then what gets shared is not useful. So you post the absolute generic with no value.

LinkedIn also feeds a different type of social media resentment. Like how Instagram makes us self-conscious about our happiness, physical bodies, and lifestyles, LinkedIn does that to professional success. I have had countless conversations with people who feel a crushing sense of falling-behind seeing the moves of their peers. The artificial and canned response only adds to this type of broken and artificial relating with others.

This doesn’t even count the “Breaking News” section on the top left corner that highlights click-bait anxiety-producing news. While it is meant to be informative, it is not context-driven, or user-driven. Constructive Journalism might be a potential solution here.

LinkedIn Groups are no better. They are either silent ghost towns or a self-promotional spam-fest of users shouting into the void to other self-promoters.

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No thank you.

Finally, it gives rise to artificial connections. You can choose to accept connection requests from only the people you know well to curate your relationships, but that reduces the value of the network (network effects).

On the opposite spectrum, if you accept everyone’s request, you drown in requests, and the whole experience ends up being a spam-filled mess.

It’s a Catch-22. Connect with discretion, you lose. Connect with all, you lose.

Broken Way of Representing Yourself

Like filling out a resume, you create a static profile which you can periodically update. You add your friends from college, from work, from the places you volunteer, etc. Someone might even leave an endorsement. You are forced to encapsulate a static version of who you are.

It commoditizes people and forces them to act in stiff and artificial ways. We already saw its effects above in the form of artificial networking and virtue signaling. LinkedIn favors the past and static you, instead of letting you build a profile that can be dynamic and about what you want to be and where you want to grow.

Throughout all this, you feel that that you are a product who is here to sell to others. This clouds your attitudes and actions on the platform.

When you commoditize yourself, you can’t help but feel somewhat dehumanized. It forces people to be fake. It makes them optimize for ATS algorithms for a job, and not for genuine connection or learning. This has given rise to an entire cottage industry of people whose entire job is to help you hack, fix, push, pull the levers of LinkedIn.

This would be okay if it were companies trying to optimize for customers and potential candidates. But it is candidates themselves who are commoditizing themselves. It is shocking that people pay for the privilege of becoming more of a neat product.

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How many of us resonate with this type of branding for ourselves?

Most people don’t want to think of themselves as a brand. This brand-building myth has given rise to the over-inflated profiles that verge on the side of looking like spam. But once again, who’s noticing, since that’s all a mess anyways.

This brand based thinking has gone far enough. You and I are not brands. We are people. The real question is: how do we let our humanity shine through? I’ll answer that later on in this essay.

For 95% of the people out there, their personal brands can be what they’ve learned, can do, and what they’d want to learn and what they would like to do, their contributions and ever growing knowledge and connections in a certain topic. And Lynda is an exciting platform, but it remains inaccessible to most users who do not have a pro account.

Broken Recruiting

To recap so far: When the user is the product, and various networks are all lumped together, you create a feed that doesn’t nourish your professional interests (or help you notice enough of the good news about your friends). You also end up either hyper-inflating your profile (BRANDING is what they’d call it) to stand apart from others or retreat from it altogether.

With content, knowledge, ideas, experiences all a jumbled mess, can genuine talent rise to the top? Do the best candidates rise up from this environment?

LinkedIn’s Recruiting Solutions relies on ATS systems or Application Tracking Systems. It relies on buzzword stuffing in your profile (“but it’s supposed to be done organically and naturally!” they’ll say).

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80–90% of applications are discarded immediately. Is this the future we had hoped for? Source: ResumeGo

In the same way that standardized tests only prove students’ ability to give standardized tests, the ATS system helps get candidates who know how to win the ATS game, not the best candidates in and of themselves.

Better recruiting would be hyper-focused based on networks and interests and seeing those who are organically contributing the best lessons, engaging with the most content, and growing along those lines. LinkedIn is not suited for that. I will propose a network-driven solution to recruiting later on in the essay that goes into this in more detail.

This old recruiting model is static and does not always allow the candidates who are learning, growing, and resorting to unconventional means to gather experience. Projects, side startups, online hustles, volunteer work, etc. are other parts of what makes a person a person.

These valuable experiences, skills, and results are ignored in a product that favors the discrete chronological separation of professional experiences alone.

We also have a broken advertiser experience. Since you are the product and the customer is the advertiser, this fuels the spammy messages we get there. As John Biggs puts it, “LinkedIn is a spam garden full of misspelled, grunty requests from international software houses that are looking, primarily, to sell you services.”

This spam-filled experience is not only limited to our inbox. It extends to our feed as well, as I’ve already discussed above.

TL;DR: LinkedIn’s core problem is making the end-user the product, but without providing enough value to her. It doesn’t allow authentic connections. By not being able to differentiate types of relationships you can have and degrees with which you want to connect with someone, your experience ends up being superficial. The same goes for your profile, which has to be static and one-sided to get recruited in the job you have, not the job you want. Finally, it doesn’t allow the best profiles to rise to the top for even recruiting, favoring LinkedIn optimizers, not the best-qualified people. To re-make LinkedIn, we need first to understand what the Future of Work is going to look like.

LinkedIn can be the catalyst for the future of work. It can use its massive number of users to actually create something good, give people a chance to be human, to focus on learning and growth and helping one another. But instead, it optimizes for algorithmic popularity.

What if we could re-frame all this and put the user at the heart of the experience? What if we can empower her to network organically, learn and grow, and position herself for unique models of work and roles, functions, and industries that she wants, as opposed to where she’s been.

Let’s think through one potential solution.

Reimagining LinkedIn

Here’s a basic tenet of human psychology that’s worth considering. People want to feel useful. They want to feel recognized for what they do.

What would a reimagined user experience look like that acknowledges this piece of psychology?

It starts with the profile. When a user creates an account, let her think of her career as a canvas. Make it about her. Don’t make her fill out a full resume right away. Make her choose the things she wants, desires want to dip into. Most of us aspire for something more significant in our professional lives. Give us a chance to hope and dream again.

Hope hooks the heart more than algorithmic gamification.

Twitter gets this right. Upon joining Twitter, you can choose your interests and immediately get a useful curation of the top people and ideas by those people. LinkedIn misses out on not having this option. Let the user follow the topics that interest her. This includes the areas she is already experienced in and areas that she would like to learn more about.

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Twitter’s experience of curating a feed for your interests is excellent.

This is not the same as following company pages. This is about “streams” or topics of interest. Currently, the only existing framework for this is LinkedIn groups, but they have proven ineffective. This can be akin to Twitter Lists. You can form “streams” about topics you want to dip into, people who are talking and writing about certain things.

The current wall of posts come from your connections and either stand on either the boring or far too general. But most of us have a variety of colleagues who are doing a variety of things. I do not believe this is the form of a network that is useful to us.

Give me the ability to dip into my “personal connections” stream if I want to, so I can see how my friends are doing professionally. But most of my time should be spent on the streams on topics that interest me.

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Twitter Lists are one example of how it is possible to separate out distinct groups of people. This is a lot more manageable for most of us since LinkedIn is only for professional networking.

What would be included in these streams? Articles, ideas, talks, etc. from across the Internet. Right now, marketers and crypto heads are aces at this, but other sectors not so much. We need to make LinkedIn into the place to find the world’s best content about your particular industry, interest, sector, etc.

This is the real opportunity to transform LinkedIn into the launching pad for the world’s best ideas about the world’s different sectors, industries, and functions.

When your post isn’t blasted into a nebulous void of everyone you are connected to (including former bosses and colleagues), you can be a lot more authentic and share ideas that actually matter to you. You can be authentic, you can be conversational.

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Mighty Networks gets this! This is the page for Mighty Hosts Discovery section. It feels more inviting, but also gives me the freedom to dip into topics I care about.

This is also the perfect way for anyone to organically join a conversation about an industry they know a lot about and something they are just exploring. They can comment on threads, comment on conversations, and start building an organic network of people they like to follow. Whose ideas resonate with them.

Think Twitter, but with more substance in each post. Not tweet threads, not empty nothing, but real conversations. Let him dip in and out of his groups. His college group, his professional group, his volunteer group, sure. But also his marketing group, his whatever group. The group can be the central point of consuming, sharing, and contributing to the content.

This is about organic networking done based on ideas. This also means that your profile can have distinct sections:

  1. A tab for your most recent posts.
  2. A tab for your summary (where you want to be).
  3. A tab for your “profile” (aka existing resume).
Facebook gets its. Despite all its problems, this is much neater than LinkedIn profiles.
Facebook gets it. Despite all its problems, this is much neater than LinkedIn profiles.

This means people can engage with you across different dimensions. This means recruiters can notice you’re growing in your networks, your knowledge, and your contribution in different domains on a more organic basis, NOT based on ATS optimization.

This system rewards the engaged, not the ATS optimized individuals. This is what networking was meant to be! This is a better proxy of networking than ever before.

Let individuals recommend contributors, and commenters recommend one another for recruiting right on the platform. Let a person be able to make a post on the “stream” and have the recommendations and applications come in.

Expanding on the idea of networks and connections, LinkedIn would offer the ability to separate your personal connections with your professional connections. This goes back to the idea of “streams” above. You don’t want to or need to read about your lawyer friend’s paper on some obscure topic you don’t understand. You should be able to read from the “personal” stream if you want to, but this shouldn’t be front and center.

You should still be able to connect with your friends and colleagues, but determine which “stream” they fall belong in. And then the content you receive should be based on your “stream” with the ability to switch between streams if you like.

This will elevate LinkedIn into a learning first platform while maintaining the significant power of networks that it already allows you to have.

Revenue Streams

LinkedIn can monetize these distinct streams with sponsored posts. But because it is not being micro-targeted into streams, it can actually be a lot more effective.

LinkedIn can also provide a similar experience like right now with its Pro account. Lynda and the existing Pro account features are excellent in their own right.

Finally, LinkedIn still has the potential to help recruiters find great candidates. But it needs to expand the scope of recruiting from just ATS optimized profiles to engaged candidates in topics/streams. This is about capturing the interest, knowledge, leadership, and engagement of the user even if they do not have strict professional experience in the space.

This also gives companies a direct path to the right candidates. Companies can create contests, recruitment challenges, gigs, and other incentives to hire and find great people.

Conclusion

LinkedIn has long been a painful experience for users. It has felt fake, and networking on there feels forced. By acknowledging that the future of work should empower the user first, not large companies, LinkedIn can re-shape its offerings to put the user at the center.

At its heart is giving the user the ability to dip and dive into different topics, create a more organic profile that can cut across different dimensions, and separate the existing “feed” into streams as per the user’s choices and preferences.

This will allow more authentic voices to rise, allow for more genuine connections, collaborations, and growth (with Lynda as a supplement), and finally, allow for better candidates to rise to the top based on knowledge and engagement.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments section below about the areas I haven’t considered. This essay will remain a WIP in perpetuity.

And if you found this interesting, you will really enjoy my once a week, spam free newsletter: Heart to Heart. Consider signing up for it here:

Acknowledgements: Barbara Sher, Emilie Wapnick, John Herrman, Jared Polites, John Biggs, Shawn Wang, 58th St. Gallen Symposium, The State of LinkedIn.

v1.2 - 21 July 2020.