LinkedIn or LockedIn? Why I deleted my account (and maybe you should too)

“Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say” — Edward Snowden

In the attention economy, there is a wildly popular sport called “Look At Me!”. I’ve done pretty well at that game over the years, given the obscurity of my subject interests. On Twitter I have nearly 6,000 followers, and on LinkedIn another c.2,500 followers plus 2,000 connections. I joined LinkedIn in January of 2004, so it’s been a long relationship and considerable investment of time and effort to get to that point.

Recently I have had some “smash hits” on LinkedIn. The Industrial Internet got 4,000 views and 800 likes. My post on the impending demise of telecoms was at well over 8,000 hits. And the article on British Airways and its strategy problems had crossed 67,000 hits, plus 1,800 likes and 300 comments. It also generated a string of inbound business inquiries and interesting relationships.
 
(Although it never prompted a response from BA, who despite over 1000 views from their own staff, showed they won’t go the extra inch for a lifelong customer, let alone the extra mile. It seems I am not alone from the comments.)
 
I also had dozens of effusive professional recommendations, a full house of endorsements, and a pristine profile full of educational, innovation and career achievement. I received all kinds of interesting information about my professional network after LinkedIn integrated the Newsle acquisition.
 
Therefore, it might come as surprise to learn that I just deleted my LinkedIn account. Permanently and irrevocably. And I won’t go back. Ever.
 
Why would I undertake what, on the face of it, is a massive act of self-sabotage? After all, I could really do with the raised commercial presence at a sensitive point in my career. Isn’t social media supposed to be a vital tool in the modern digital business? It’s not easy making a living outside the protective dome of the corporate mothership. And losing this source of exposure and interest is definitely a painful loss.
 
Why hit ‘delete’? I value integrity and freedom more than I value a fleeting fame or fake fortune. And I’d like to think that you might, too.
 
I was paying LinkedIn as a premium user a healthy dose of cash each month. A recent redesign took away two core features: knowing who shared your articles (and what they said whilst doing so), and the ability to make notes against people (and thus use it as a system for managing business relationships).
 
This might feel trivial, and from a purely logical standpoint it is. Yet the emotional and ethical effect is very different.
 
When I signed up for a premium account, I am making an assumption that my investment in the service will be based on it having at least the then-current feature set. Furthermore, information about who interacts with my content is personal data, albeit at one degree of separation. LinkedIn is asserting it can have access to this data and control over it, and I cannot.
 
Furthermore, it these changes have been imposed without any notification or explanation. Whilst the new user interface is cleaner for the ordinary content-absorbing user, it is a serious retrograde step for the professional content producer. If I wanted a primary school aesthetic for a professional content management system UI, I’d go elsewhere. The feeling I get is being condescended to, like a small child being told to eat their over-boiled vegetables.
 
The essential issue here is: I am the customer, or am I the product? Well, LinkedIn answered this with the following ad in my feed, that tells me that I am, in their view, the product.

That as a premium paying customer they also try to fill my feed with adverts compounds this disrespectful and disingenuous attitude. The movement of their “jobs” feature and other irrelevances into prominence in the interface (remember: I am a paying premium member) makes it all the clearer that I am not viewed as the customer.
 
You cannot serve two masters, and LinkedIn is making a basic ethical violation. If you take my money, I am the customer. You serve me, and nobody else. You are welcome to engage in a two-sided business model, but not a two-faced one.
 
This is about morals, not manners. There are lots of other problems, like removal of advanced search, or doubling of prices. But at the end of the day, if you offer to provide a service to one person whilst actually serving the needs of another, you are corrupt in some way.
 
LinkedIn’s management are betting that the everyday premium professional user will simply assume they are powerless. They as a large corporation and virtual landowner can change the tenancy terms and features, and you can’t do anything about it as a digital serf. They “own” the site, and you accept their terms, as you have too much invested in their platform, and the cost of losing that visibility is too high.
 
At worst, you might cancel your premium subscription, losing them a few hundred dollars a year, and you losing your extra visibility and fancy strapline. At first that’s what I did. But it left me still deeply troubled. Why am I associating my name and microbrand with this entity that acts in a disrespectful and dubious manner? You are judged by the company you keep.
 
The problem with that is that “social” media, if it is to mean anything, requires a society to support it. That means having common shared values, and I deeply value integrity as one of them. I am a fallible human, and have made a few costly slips in my life. This have only served to reinforce the absolute necessity and value of personal integrity.
 
I also am absolutely attached to freedom, whilst noting its occasional paradoxical complexity (as, say, your freedom to smoke in public and mine not to are in tension). When we let go of our digital identity construction and hand over sovereignty to someone else, it erodes our freedom.
 
A lesson from the talk by Mark Rolston of Frog Design at the 2016 Hyper Wellbeing conference was that our online and physical identities cannot be separated. The loss of self-sovereign digital identity is a loss of core freedom to own and express your human identity.
 
This also mirrors the findings of my own Hypervoice Consortium research, which I undertook alongside Kelly Fitzsimmons. Our joint conclusion was that the core issue with technology is identity, and that we need a fundamentally new approach that puts the individual human back at the centre. Our vision for a new Human Technology paradigm to displace Information Technology is laid out as the “Guardian Avatar” (see video, report or slide deck).
 
I have long preached the need for the technology industry to have more ethos and pathos, and less logos. Deleting my LinkedIn account doesn’t make commercial sense (logos), and is a painful thing to do (pathos), but is the right course of action (ethos). I realised today that it was all very well talking the talk. To be taken seriously, I had to accept the cost of walking the walk, however high it may be.
 
LinkedIn has broken my personal ethical rules for acceptable behaviour. In the absence of an automated Guardian Avatar checking the terms of service and enforcing my firm mores, I am left to do the work manually.
 
Now at this point, I had intended to show you a picture of the “account closed” confirmation screen. I was expecting to tell you how it hurt like a digital wisdom tooth extraction without anaesthetic.
 
This is what I got instead:

You can “downgrade” your account, but they won’t let you delete it until the end of the billing cycle. They send you on an infinite loop of unhelp pages and dialogues. At this point I transition from an irritated “linked out” to an incandescently furious “LINK OFF!”. Why so?
 
This is the digital equivalent of false imprisonment or hostage-taking. My avatar is still up there on the LinkedIn site, offering my free content, and endorsing their service by my identity’s presence. In the physical world, I could just walk off stage and leave the building. They are stopping me from doing that.
 
In today’s “symbolic” world of text articles, that’s an annoyance; in tomorrow’s “sensory” world of intimate data, that’s going to be totally unacceptable. This is a violation of several of the essential principles of privacy by design, notably “fair” and “private by default”.
 
Indeed, it gets worse. They see closing and deleting accounts as two separate activities, and no matter how much you want to disassociate yourself from them insist on retaining your data for 20 days. This violates the standard on data retention, since I have asked for deletion of my account, not mere closure of its credentials.

So I’ve filed a little support request, per below. I will tweet when it’s fully executed. And if it isn’t, oh boy, will the world know about it.

I am fortunate, as I anticipated the possibility of this emergency digital identity surgery a long, long time ago. I have assiduously built up a mailing list as a force independent of any multinational corporate social media site. It was obvious from the get-go that I should never make myself over-dependent on Twitter, LinkedIn, Blogger or any other platform I didn’t control. Even Medium.

As such, I make a regular backup of the mailing list. Even if Mailchimp suddenly went kaput, I’d be able to restart it on another service provider. Every article I published elsewhere contained an exhortation to come and sign up to this truly independent source of opinion.

I also ensured every article is also on my website, and publicly thank my hidden helper Faye McClenahan for her unstinting efforts in doing this somewhat dull admin task well below her skill level as a tech industry marketing expert.
 
So around 1600 people are gathered on the list in the wayward intellectual corner of the tech industry. And by the very act of you reading this far, it turns out that I (and you) are not powerless. We can choose not to associate with businesses and virtual places that don’t fit our moral codes. And LinkedIn definitely no longer fits mine.
 
This reminds me of how recently the Spanish people protested against an unfair hike in the price of electrical power. They joined together in a viral campaign to all switch off their power at the same time for half an hour. And it worked.

This is a “negative” freedom, the opposite of the freedom of assembly, which is the freedom of non-association and to shun. It is a very powerful one, and much under-used. You can tell it is powerful, as LockedIn want to deny it to you.
 
My wish is that many of you will forward this article to other people. The original newsletter has a permalink here, too, if you would like to tweet it. We can, if we choose, show we care about integrity and freedom. Because to do otherwise is to collude with a business model that lacks integrity and harms the freedom of identity control we wish to pass on to our children.
 
You don’t need to delete your LinkedIn account. That’s too much for me to ask (although I would applaud if you did). But you can certainly help me get as much moral message value as possible for the world out of me having deleted mine.
 
Please do share this note widely with your professional friends who are interested in a more humanistic and socially positive future for technology. I would be most grateful if you would ask them to join up to my mailing list.

About Martin Geddes

I am a computer scientist, telecoms expert, and intellectual explorer. I collaborate with leading practitioners in the communications industry to create game-changing new technologies and businesses.

www.martingeddes.com

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