LinkedIn is weird

LinkedIn doesn’t have to make sense to us. It just is.
LinkedIn doesn’t have to make sense to us. It just is.
Image: Reuters/Mike Segar
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Perhaps LinkedIn isn’t such a joke after all. The news that Microsoft is buying the professional social networking site for $26.2 billion has prompted countless cracks about the uselessness of LinkedIn and how nobody uses the platform.

It’s true that LinkedIn users’ job histories often appear to be aspirational rather than factual, and that site has proven to be inescapable even when members try to unsubscribe. But quips aside, $196 per share in cash is no laughing matter. So 14 years after LinkedIn launched as a place to “to connect the world’s professionals to make them more productive and successful,” it’s worth asking who, exactly, is using LinkedIn—and why?

For starters, mostly old people, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey of social media users. The study showed that more 30- to 49-year-olds than 18- to 29-year-olds used LinkedIn, and noted the site has struggled to attract younger users year after year.

As someone in the younger age bracket, I can testify that my relationship with LinkedIn has never felt natural. I first made an account after a career counselor in college deemed it necessary, but it’s been tough to figure out the value in it. Requests roll in constantly from people I wouldn’t even friend on Facebook, much less interact with in real life or professionally—from estranged exes to distant relatives and thirsty undergrads from my university whom I’ve never met personally.

There’s a lot of things about LinkedIn that seem bewildering from the outside. Its “endorsement” tool, for example, is so spammy that it’s effectively devoid of meaning. The website prompts users to vouch for the skills of their connections, situated so prominently on the page that a stray click could lead you to enthusiastically recommend someone you do not actually know, for skills you have no idea whether they actually possess. Last week, a stranger I have never met or worked with endorsed me for WordPress and French. This was very nice of him, but given that he does not know me, he’s not the most reliable source. A friend of mine in a completely different industry, whom I’ve never worked with, endorsed my blogging and proofreading skills. Recently my high school English teacher, who I don’t actually remember “connecting” with, endorsed me for AP Style, more than eight years after I took his class. Thanks, Mr. Fry!

These endorsements lead many people to rack up points for skills they don’t necessarily have, which would seem to make the platform a less-than-accurate barometer for hiring managers. Yet 93% of hiring managers say they check LinkedIn when seeking job candidates. So whether or not users think LinkedIn is legit, their potential employers are treating it as if it is.

Erica Lauren Bernhard, who started her own business in tech and marketing, said she uses LinkedIn infrequently. But when she does log on, she finds herself endorsed for skills she finds baffling.

“My most endorsed skill is public speaking,” she said. “I understand it’s a compliment, because I am good at talking to people. But I do not do this in a professional or formal manner, so it’s weird.”

Like Bernhard, the vast majority of LinkedIn users do not log on often. As of October 2015, the platform had 400 million members, but only a quarter of those were active each month. Much of the activity varies by industry: the site can be far more beneficial to people who work in human resources, sales, and public relations.

Crystal Rose Cathcart, a regional sales director, said she loves LinkedIn and uses it daily to hunt down clients.

“I have to make contacts with senior management at larger companies across the US, so networking at local events limit my options,” she said. “On LinkedIn, I find the right people and set up phone calls from there.”

Stephanie Halovanic, a recent college graduate who works in advertising, also said she logs onto the site nearly every day, using its main feed as her primary source of news and career advice. She uses the site not only for work, but also as a source of information or “internet stalking” when she meets someone new—whether it is a date or a friend.

“I am relatively new to the ‘real world,’ so it’s super entertaining for me to see where my friends are working and who is doing what career-wise,” she said. “I am always curious where people have worked before, what they studied, and how long they’ve been in the industry.”

Surrounded by LinkedIn acolytes, I recently decided to give the site a real go after years of passive use. A friend recommended that I update my page after she was poached for her dream job through the platform. So I gave in and signed up for the free month-long trial for premium to give my page a full makeover. Although I have technically been writing as a freelancer for more than a year, I had been unsure about how to note it on my profile and left out the role until I finally updated it last week.

Almost immediately, eight people “liked” my “new job” that I’ve had for months, as most of my real-life “connections” already know. I then began to receive dozens of automated messages on the platform that all said the exact same thing: “Congrats on the new role! Hope you’re doing well.”

These robotic, disingenuous greetings encapsulate everything that’s inadvertently hilarious about LinkedIn. They also mark one of the site’s biggest flaws: it remains one of the most impersonal, awkwardly formal, and least fashionable social platforms around. But as Microsoft prepares to build out its networking tools through the platform, it’s impossible to deny that, for job searching, LinkedIn holds real value. Sure–in the high-school cafeteria of the social media world, the site is the uptight debate team captain. But as any grown-up geek can attest, you don’t have to be cool to be worthwhile.