LinkedIn is a professional networking website, with an orientation toward business and employment, launched in 2003 by Reid Hoffman, Allen Blue, Konstantin Guericke, Eric Ly, and Jean-Luc Vaillant in California, the United States. On LinkedIn, users create profile pages that resemble CVs, summarizing their education, skills, work experience, and volunteer experience. Furthermore, LinkedIn is a place where professionals can expand their networks by connecting with one another, and a space for companies to post their job listings and hunt for prospective employees (Gregersen, n.d). Finally, it is perhaps among the most depressing sites on the Internet.
Yes, social media can be depressing, however, the amount of anxiety that LinkedIn instilled in me is unmatched. “I am not logging into LinkedIn until my mental health gets better.” A promise I made to myself around this time last year, back when I would spend hours and hours editing my profile to make sure it looks at least presentable for someone whose only working experience was a minimum-wage babysitting job and saving hundreds of vacancies that I could not bring myself to apply for simply because I hate most of them. However, nothing could be more damaging than the futile, almost masochistic, attempts to gain motivation by lurking through other people’s profiles, subjecting myself to peer pressure just to end up feeling anything but motivated. The word of honour was kept, “I don’t have a dream job. I don’t dream of labour”, a TikTok-stolen mantra I told myself half-jokingly. So I turned off my LinkedIn job alerts and refused to sign in until very recently. I logged in, updated my account, and then texted my friend, telling her that I did not spiral into a mental breakdown despite spending some time on LinkedIn, because accomplishments like these need to be shared. However, once I started using the site again, I found myself slipping into old patterns of mindless scrolling, constant lurking, and borderline self-loathing.
“Facebook in a suit”
Although LinkedIn is known for its strong emphasis on workplace professionalism, the site is not too different from other social media platforms when it comes to promoting “mass self-communication”, as well as the commodification of the online self. Users of these sites take advantage of the narrative-oriented interfaces to construct a representation of themselves, one that, in many cases, might be translated into actual income. However, if recreational platforms like Facebook prioritize personal self-expression, LinkedIn places its primary focus on professional self-promotion, with little space for personality and emotions for their possible negative impact on one’s professional self-representation (Van Dijk, 2013). Thus, for someone who hasn’t really established a professional profile in the real world, like me, LinkedIn can feel rather forced. It’s not that I haven’t had any work experience, it’s just that my profile page feels more like a database, a form of online sharing that social networking services (SNSs) nowadays no longer seem to promote.
According to Van Dijk (2013), the creators of SNSs are into the concept of their users assuming one identity for the sake of standardizing the gathering of behavioral data, thus leading to increases in the transparency of data, as well as overall productivity. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg even went as far as to say: “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity”, quoted in “The Facebook Effect” by David Kirkpatrick (2010). His introduction of the Timeline feature on Facebook was to foster a uniform way for users to express themselves through the story of their lives, told in chronological order. As for LinkedIn, the site uses a typical CV structure to format its profile pages, emphasizing its emphasis on professional identities. In other words, users are encouraged to present themselves as professionals only. Yet, even within this professional promotion of the self, there seems to be a subtle need for consistency still. For example, if you are a data analyst, present yourself as a data analyst. So as someone who hasn’t really specialized in anything yet, my profile page is severely lacking in a coherent structure and a narrative, with a little bit of a few things here and there and a bio describing myself as a “highly motivated individual who is eager to learn”. Even from an organizational perspective, this generality of skills wouldn’t be considered valuable compared to being good at a specific subject since specialization is an important characteristic of today’s neoliberal capitalist economy. In short, the lack of a well-established professional identity does cause me some difficulties in constructing a profile that is truly effective to even start with. While all of this does make me feel kind of bad about my presence on the site, the real problem has to be why it made me feel so in the first place.
It’s about drive, it’s about power
What is so anxiety-inducing about LinkedIn lies in the hustle culture it promotes, one in which people are expected to work relentlessly, a culture of perfectionism, of competition, of not feeling enough. What usually happens is that: I log into LinkedIn to update my profile and look through its job portal for new openings, but of course, almost without fail, I feel the need to check how your peers are doing too. I would search for a random name of a classmate, see their accomplishments, feel bad about myself because I’m not doing enough despite studying in the same programme, click on their entries to find out more about their work, wonder if there are similar jobs that I could also do, start looking for jobs, feel even worse because I can’t find any yet refuse to leave the site until I find something or someone that could give me hope about the future. The LinkedIn rabbit hole is truly hellish!
Another form of dread comes from LinkedIn’s newsfeed, where you can see mostly work-related posts ranging from professional announcements to motivational essays. If you have a large enough network, it is probably not that difficult to come across something like: “All the hustle will pay off”. A lot of people also wrote long essays to express their gratitude and devotion toward their company. In a New York Times article titled “Why are young people pretending to love work?”, journalist Erin Griffith (2019) wrote: “In the new work culture, enduring or even merely liking one’s job is not enough. Workers should love what they do, and then promote that love on social media, thus fusing their identities to that of their employers. Why else would LinkedIn build its own version of Snapchat Stories?” (Yes, if you were active on LinkedIn prior to September 2021, you might remember the LinkedIn Stories feature. I don’t). This work culture driven by LinkedIn might have also been driven by its demographics, which consists of mostly middle-aged men having relatively well-paid (corporate) jobs in (large) companies (van Dijk, 2013). Like David Heinemeier Hansson, founder of Basecamp, said: “The vast majority of people beating the drums of hustle mania are not the people doing the actual work. They’re managers, financiers and owners”. He also shared with Griffith that while the myths about overworking and its “benefits” have been debunked by actual data, people still believe in them because those are the explanations they use to justify the extreme wealth accumulated by the privileged few (Griffith, 2019).
The LinkedIn dread is almost inevitable, at least for me, and after a year of being off the site, it is still very much there. After all, it is the product of capitalism and the culture it promotes. But if you think about it, all social network services are products of capitalism, however, on LinkedIn, one is directly confronted by its culture. That’s what makes it so scary.
Dijck, J. van. (2013). ‘you have one identity’: performing the self on facebook and linkedin. Media, Culture & Society, 35(2), 199–21
Gregersen, E. (2021, September 14). LinkedIn. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/LinkedIn
Griffith, J. (2019, Jan 26). Why are Young People Pretending to Love Work? New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/26/business/against-hustle-culture-rise-and-grind-tgim.html