This post was written yesterday and has an update at the bottom.
Today, I will delete my LinkedIn account. I say I will instead of I have because I do not know how LinkedIn’s account settings work; deleting my account may require substantial effort on my part, it may not even be possible at all. The fact that I have no idea how my account works on LinkedIn should tell you two things: first, that the web service’s account persistence schemas are incredibly dense and durable, and second, that I have never so much as poked around my LinkedIn account. The first part is generally interesting, and extremely important on a blog like this. Why and how web apps choose to persist user data is in many ways the essence, or at least an exemplar, of big data and analytics. It deserves its own blog post, and it will only be addressed here as it connects to the second item: my particular experience with LinkedIn, and why it convinced me to delete my account.
To begin, some statistics:
As of this post, LinkedIn claimed to have over 225 million registered members. That’s a lot of people. For context, Instagram claims around 100 million users, and world-heavyweight Facebook tops the chart at over 1 billion users. For those of you keeping score at home:
That kind of feels right, but something is off. Facebook is so massive that it distorts just about every metric it touches. It just does. But the amount of email spam I get from LinkedIn feels MUCH higher than the Facebook flood. Without thinking too hard about it, there are a few obvious reasons for the disparity.
First, I hate LinkedIn emails. Seriously, they are by far the most annoying spam I get from a serious organization. Why is that? Well, for starters, LinkedIn had the terrible idea to route their spam through user email addresses. Seriously, go check your inbox for an “Invitation to connect on LinkedIn.” They don’t come from *@linkedin.com, which THEY ABSOLUTELY SHOULD. To be clear, LinkedIn asked for—and received—my permission to use my email address this way. Users—myself included—SUCK at managing 3rd party login permissions. A quick scan of my Google account reveals that I have granted access to 49 different websites. AND I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT MOST OF THEM ARE, OR WHAT PERMISSIONS I GAVE THEM. Worse, I am a (new) web developer, so I have at least a basic understanding of how these authentication systems work. If you’re like most people, the idea that you would voluntarily give a third party control of your Gmail makes no intuitive sense. It’s your gmail, why would LinkedIn be sending emails from firstname.lastname@example.org? Even worse, if you are a normal person, you probably don’t even have the vocabulary available to ask that question. Go ahead, try to find your Google account’s permissions. I’ll wait here. When you give up, you can click here for instructions.
The point isn’t to beat up on Google, or make fun of the average user. Facebook’s API’s are in some way more invasive than Google’s, or at least, they hold the potential for equally bad abuse by malicious users, and I think software should be targeted to the average “normal” user. (In fact, I so strongly believe this that I was apparently the only person on Facebook or HackerNews who thought this article was 100% dead-wrong. I am in fact so opposed to this thinking that I will address it in a dedicated blog post, but let me be clear: abstraction and specialization are the CORRECT ways to design complex systems for common use, and I think the average user should learn as much programming as they do plumbing to fix their sink, which is to say exactly the minimum needed to keep things working for them and nothing more.)
Software that traps standard users, or invites crappy 3rd party developers to trick them, is bad software. Complexity should be abstracted away from users until normal users can reach something like the 80/20 balance—where they can get 80% of the software’s utility with 20% of a full understanding of its functioning. For what it’s worth, that’s a really hard UX goal to reach, and I respect engineers on the front and back end enormously for the challenge they face. But that does not mean that it is OK for Google to make it that easy for LinkedIn to email people from your email address, and it certainly does not make it OK for LinkedIn to do it! Allocating blame is tricky here: Google is the holder of your information and manager of your identity, and so it has the final responsibility not to let spammers get access to it. But they’ve made a tremendously powerful tool for developers available in their account API’s, and I am more upset with a social network mammoth like LinkedIn for abusing a tool like that than I am at its makers for making it available. Exactly how you judge everyone involved is up to you, but the point is there’s something wrong.
Nailing it down: the first reason I hate LinkedIn emails so much is that they are delivered in an inherently abusive way. They are sent through the personal email addresses of people I know, despite the fact that they are marketing emails sent from a large company.
The second reason I hate LinkedIn emails so much is that they are marketing emails for a service that I don’t use, and neither do you. When I get a marketing email from Facebook, the odds are very good that I will intuitively understand the context surrounding it. The emails describe an action that happened, and the people involved in that action, so that I am brought up to speed before I even click through to the website. THIS IS A GOOD DESIGN.
Moreover, the average Facebook user is way more likely to be active than a LinkedIn user. That means that people tend not to lurk as hard on Facebook as they do on LinkedIn. Think about that for a second. Sounds crazy right? Since both companies are publicly traded, you don’t have to take my word for it:
For the quarter ending June 2013, Facebook reported 1,155,000,000 monthly active users. Calling their original registration numbers ~1,300,000,000, which is generous, means that 88% of Facebook’s users actually use the site regularly.
Compare that to LinkedIn, which claims that 170,000,000 of its 218,000,000 users logged in during the quarter ending March 2013, for a total closer to 77%. That number actually understates the disparity, because it just measures unique visitors.
While LinkedIn users spend an average of eight minutes on the site daily, Facebook users hang round for over 33 minutes, or OVER HALF AN HOUR each. In fact, LinkedIn puts this problem much better than I can:
“The number of our registered members is higher than the number of actual members and a substantial majority of our page views are generated by a minority of our members. Our business may be adversely impacted if we are unable to attract and retain additional members who actively use our services.” (source)
The point of all this isn’t to dump on LinkedIn. If nothing else, their engineering team is absolutely amazing. The point is that they’re a company that is already starting with an unengaged user base, which means they face a higher bar for unsolicited emails they send their users. When LinkedIn emails me something—let alone by hijacking a user’s email address—it is not going to trigger the same easy context recall that Facebook’s or Google’s emails will.
People tend to intuitively sense LinkedIn’s broad-but-shallow user base problem. Everyone knows that everyone has a LinkedIn profile, but I challenge you to find three friends who use theirs actively. Now try it with Facebook. Until today I had never read the statistics I linked to above, but it just feels obvious when you read your LinkedIn mail that it isn’t being generated by eager friends trying to network. LinkedIn should not be sending annoying emails like that. The company is facing pressure because the average user is turned off from deep engagement. But the way to fix that absolutely IS NOT to spam them, which makes people even more leery, and irritated with your service.
What all of this means is that LinkedIn faces a serious challenge in a crappy environment. I don’t envy them. Overall, there is a small number of very good reasons for me to get rid of my account, which I’ve discussed above. It more or less boils down to this: I find the user experience annoying and intrusive. But the real problem with LinkedIn is not that it’s kind of annoying. There are lots of kind of annoying services that I continue to use, and will continue to use as long as they provide me with something of value. The real problem with LinkedIn is that it does nothing useful for me. Nothing. In fact, aside from generating a boatload of spam, I can’t tell how exactly LinkedIn is even supposed to impact my life. I know I’m supposed to “network” with it, but I already “network” with Facebook, and Twitter, and beer.
Update: I have officially shut down my LinkedIn account. To their credit, “closing” my account was relatively simple. An odd coda for a peculiar performance. If I ever make a new account with LinkedIn, I will be sure to post my experiences.