LinkedIn Killed the Facebook Star
How Modern Life Has Annihilated the Distinction Between the Personal and Professional
I thought of the title for this piece before I knew what I wanted to say. The phrase popped into my head after I realized I search for people on LinkedIn before I check Facebook or Instagram. I’m not ashamed. After all, I haven’t updated my Facebook profile since I was in high school, and most everyone sets their Instagram to private. If you want up-to-date, accessible information about what someone looks like and what they do, LinkedIn is the safest bet. But that sparked a broader question: If Facebook and LinkedIn are interchangeable for me, what does that say about LinkedIn? What does it say about me?
LinkedIn looks exactly like Facebook. It doesn’t seem at all remarkable that people would interact with it the same way. The platforms’ functionality is virtually identical. Their feeds look the same. Their built-in IM systems look similar. Their “react” buttons convey a similar range of emotions — like, love, support, sadness. LinkedIn even cribbed Facebook’s blue and white color scheme.
But there even more differences! Facebook has focused on developing Groups into the premiere space on the site — areas where it still feels “safe” to make a text post. LinkedIn Groups, by contrast, were dead on arrival. Facebook has poured billions of dollars into their messaging applications like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, betting big on the importance of group chats in modern social life. No one has a LinkedIn group chat.
More broadly speaking, LinkedIn’s context is virtually orthogonal to Facebook’s. It exists within a broader Microsoft ecosystem, designed to extract cold hard cash from professionals. Facebook is “free and always will be,” per their splash page. LinkedIn has various premium all-access plans (full disclosure: I’m a desperate, unemployed loser who has paid for Premium Business in the past). LinkedIn Learning, a freemium education service, is increasingly integrated into Microsoft’s software sales strategy. In short, the two platforms have pretty distinct target audiences and revenue streams.
But LinkedIn doesn’t feel like a resume platform or even a networking platform. It doesn’t even really feel like a social media network that has anything to do with jobs. Sure, some people use it that way. But the majority of my feed looks something like this:
To be clear, I don’t mind recognizing these scientists on LinkedIn. They made tremendous, often undervalued contributions to our understanding of astrophysics, and it’s terrific that they’re getting the recognition they deserve. But doesn’t this look a lot like a meme? What’s it doing on the “professional” network? For reference, this is the first post from my Facebook feed:
Does this look that distinct? Like, at all? We can talk about the content and the intended audience, but the formatting and aesthetics are fundamentally the same. If two platforms are as distinct as they seem to be, why the convergence? Why do different people interact with Facebook and LinkedIn in almost precisely the same way?
As I was halfway through writing this article, LinkedIn did me a gigantic solid and rolled out an enormous update to their mobile app. Here’s a comparison with the Facebook app:
LinkedIn describes their app’s redesign as a pivot to a “new look that’s warmer and puts the community front and center.” LinkedIn’s VP of Design, Sarah Alpern, is explicit about this, nothing that LinkedIn is “no longer just a place to find a job” — something that they’ve strived to reflect in the app’s new design philosophy. LinkedIn is focused on “infusing community” and creating an experience designed to “share and inspire.” All of this is a far cry from LinkedIn’s origins. LinkedIn isn’t just a virtual CV, it isn’t just a job site, and it isn’t just a hub for training. Alpern is pretty explicitly saying that she wants people to use LinkedIn for their whole lives, not only their professional needs.
This makes perfect sense on a lot of levels — I’m not arguing with LinkedIn’s strategy. Building a community on the platform ultimately increases engagement, revenue, and scale. If you treat LinkedIn as a virtual resume, there’s no reason to check back every day, and it’s harder to monetize your valuable ad clicks or convince you to buy a premium status. This all makes sense. But why is this working?
I think the convergence of LinkedIn with Facebook points to a broader trend among millennials and Gen Z, the youngest of whom (like myself) are now entering the workplace. With apologies to Stanley Kubrick, for many young people, it no longer makes sense to complain about how “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” The workplace has become virtually indistinguishable from our personal lives. For many of us, it makes perfect sense to interact with LinkedIn the same way you do with Facebook or Twitter.
Unfortunately, this phenomenon was predicted by American political scientist Robert Putnam in his seminal 2000 book, Bowling Alone. The core of Putnam’s argument is that Americans increasingly lack “third places” outside their homes and offices. Fewer Americans participate in organized religion, amateur sports, and fraternal organizations than at any previous point in America. Traditionally, despite our individualist ethos, the United States has had one of the most community-oriented cultures in the rich world. Putnam wasn’t the first person to note the importance of community participation in American life, either. In 1835, following the French Revolution’s failure, Alexis de Tocqueville famously hypothesized that this very same communitarian ethos enabled Americans to sustain liberal democracy. Anecdotally, Putnam’s conclusions seem right. How many young professionals do you know who coach little league teams? How many are a part of the rotary club? How many play in amateur bowling leagues? The upshot is that it is hard to make friends once you leave college. If like many people, you didn’t graduate college with a strong friend group, work is the logical place to find a social life. After all, the division between social life and work life didn’t exist in college or high school. Why should it exist in professional life?
There’s even a helpful corporate buzzword for this phenomenon: Work-Life Integration. The thinking behind the concept sounds, at its core, pretty reasonable. Your job shouldn’t feel like it’s opposed to the rest of your life. Clocking in at your 9 to 5 office job shouldn’t feel like it’s robbing you of the best years of your life. Instead, managers should try to find ways that work can “synergize” with the rest of your life. In English, that means that companies should try to make jobs more fun and less bland. Jobs should feel like they’re distinct from the rest of your life.
This philosophy has revolutionized the way people approach work. I live in Seattle, perhaps one of the most casual cities in America. Despite the presence of corporate titans like Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Boeing, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone wearing a suit. This culture of casualness extends far beyond the tech titans — places as fusty as management consulting firms or investment banks have hopped onto the bandwagon. Business casual and now work-from-home sweatpants have rapidly become the norm in most workplaces. Executives go by their first names in all conversations, not just with their peers.
But just as we’ve tamed the office, replacing dreary cubicles and fax machines with playground slides and kegs of kombucha, the workplace has invaded our homes. Most Americans say they check their work email daily, including weekends, after work, and on vacation. COVID-19 has vastly accelerated the trend: Two-thirds of workers work from home, and offices are unlikely to return to full capacity in the near term. In a world where you’re always working, even when you’re in “weekend mode,” it makes sense that the lines between personal and professional life have begun to blur.
I don’t think any of these changes are inherently flawed. Wearing a suit every day would be annoying and expensive. Calling my manager “miss” would introduce unnecessary formality and hierarchy. The modern office’s perks are great: I imagine workers save a lot of money on cold brew and kombucha. And, frankly, it’s often a lot easier to take 15 minutes to resolve a crisis on a Friday night than dealing with an escalated situation come Monday. But I think we should recognize that there are trade-offs. By blurring the lines between professional and personal life, we’ve made both more complex. We’ve abolished the rules which once governed how we presented ourselves professionally and personally. LinkedIn is just the first place it’s coming home to roost for Gen Z.
So, if you yearn for the buttoned-down LinkedIn of yore when people only posted about work and business things, I suspect you’re going to be disappointed. LinkedIn didn’t just kill the Facebook star. Like a hungry god, it devoured it.