Happy birthday, cherished LinkedIn professional acquaintance!

Perry Hewitt
Jul 26, 2014 · 3 min read

Whether you use LinkedIn on a laptop, the traditional mobile app or the new Connected app, you’ve no doubt encountered the LinkedIn birthday phenomenon. I don’t know how well LinkedIn thought this user experience through, but here’s how it plays out in practice. Remember that slightly sweaty but affable guy you sat next to at Dreamforce back in 2004? And that you talked about CRM and found out you both used to work at Lotus? And then you connected on LinkedIn? Well, now it’s his birthday — what are you going to do about it?

And once LinkedIn has a piece of connection-enhancing information like this, it’s like a dog with a bone. Those birthdays will surface on the mobile app stream, and pop up as “notifications.” They’ll be emailed to you each morning beneath a giant collage of people you vaguely remember from somewhere, who are unwittingly celebrating dubious life milestones like the “work anniversary.” Those birthdays will pop up in the content feed just when you found an Influencer piece you might actually want to read. LinkedIn wants you to know: that guy from Dreamforce? Back in 2004? It is his birthday.

LinkedIn puts us in a tough spot. On the one hand, they surface anyone who has ever worked on the same planet as you, and urges you to connect with them. They position themselves succinctly as “the world’s largest professional network” where you can “power your career.” But through the Connected app, LinkedIn has now invaded my calendar and urges me to connect with anyone on it, including the guy who came and measured my stairs for a carpet runner this weekend. It’s tough case to make, pushing for both professional connection promiscuity alongside hey-it’s-your-pal’s-birthday intimacy.

Look, I’m not without sympathy here. Facebook was the first to surface birthdays in an exquisitely public way, and it worked out well for them. But that’s because Facebook started with your actual circle of friends and family, people whose birthdays you were supposed to remember and celebrate. I mean, you had to accept Facebook friend requests from your family, even if you immediately locked down your privacy settings tighter than a drum to avoid awkward conversations over Thanksgiving. There’s no such familial obligation from LinkedIn — you don’t have to accept a connection request from that cousin who’s twice out of rehab and swearing to turn that auto body shop into a legitimate business. You just don’t.

I’m a LinkedIn fan, and sympathetic to their aggressive move from a static résumé site to a daily content destination. I mean, I break out my low member number (why, 6818, thanks for asking) anytime a 20-something in an Arc’teryx jacket wearily mansplains a social networking app like Yo or Snapchat to me. But LinkedIn might want to think a little harder about the use case for the features it rolls out. What on earth I should say in that birthday message to the Dreamforce acquaintance I met a decade ago?

One idea: LinkedIn Premium Sales emails me and everyone I know at least 10 times a week, offering up a whole free month before they would gleefully charge me $1,200 a year. Maybe turn that pitch around — make the selling point the ability to turn off some of the more awkward alerts, like birthdays and work anniversaries. Until then please know, cherished Dreamforce acquaintance, that I wish you well on this day and all others, but I’m not sending over a cake.

Photo credit: Tasha Chawner

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