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Why Weird LinkedIn Never Happened

Where fun goes to die

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

F our years ago, something funny happened on LinkedIn. Following the company’s introduction of an endorsement feature — a tool that allowed you to publicly vouch for your friends’ skills — users started getting weird. Alongside stiff areas of expertise like “management” and “programming,” people started recommending their connections for skills like “pole-dancing,” “awesomeness,” and “general awesomeness.” Responsible for this solitary act of bizarreness was the late marketing company CEO Brian Clark, who named the practice “endorsement bombing” and collected the best examples on a Tumblr page. Some said it proved the act of endorsing your connections on the network was useless. But mostly, people just celebrated its absurdity: It was harmless internet tomfoolery.

Tellingly, “endorsement bombing” was probably the most exciting thing that ever happened on the low-fat Yoplait of a social network that is LinkedIn. Over its 13 years of existence, the company — which just announced it will be absorbed by Microsoft in a $26.2 billion deal — has earned a reputation as a cultural wasteland — a place where words like “synergy” are taken seriously, and “influencers” publish deadpan articles titled “The Rumble in Big Retail’s Jungle.”

It’s not that people don’t use it. (LinkedIn has more than 400 million members globally and is a wildly popular tool among job recruiters.) It’s that generally people loathe to use it. It both magnifies the meaningless pleasantries that one must go through during a job search and encourages a bland professionalism that feels unnatural to the internet. The company’s stock introduction — “Hi, I’d like to add you to my professional network on LinkedIn” — is so ironically dystopian that it works as an entry for literally every New Yorker cartoon caption contest. As one social media expert I emailed for comment on this story put it: “Nobody on LinkedIn really wants to be there … recruiters swear by it, everyone else swears at it.” Addressing the company directly on The Daily Show in 2013, John Oliver put it more bluntly: “You seem to have monetized irritating people!”

There are plenty of theories as to why LinkedIn failed as a social network, but buried in that question is something deeper: How is LinkedIn, an online network of millions that’s ripe for trolling, the one place the weird internet never planted its flag?

You’ve stumbled into the weird internet even if you never explicitly knew it. Nonsensical and powerful, it usually involves a mischievous mass who enjoy messing with earnest social structures. It swoops in every time someone foolishly holds a public child- or boat-naming contest. It has taken advantage of cable television for not thoroughly vetting its guests. And it donates thousands of dollars to deliberately useless projects on Kickstarter. You can find it on Twitter, Facebook, and even on pockets of Pinterest. The general rule is if you build a social network, the weird internet will come.

The type of culture that LinkedIn fostered, in contrast, is unintentionally weird. (Such earnest banality should have made it an ideal conquest for the insatiable weird internet). I envy the LinkedIn user who logs into her account and finds only inquiries and endorsements from former coworkers or attractive future employers. Instead I’m usually barraged by an endless number of requests from strangers, who then proceed to endorse me for skills I do not possess. Sometimes those strangers are scammers, posing as vague marketing officials or celebrities. Even the profiles of real well-known people on the network seem to be unintentionally hilarious. (I’m talking to you, Korn’s Jonathan Davis, and you, professional Ricky Gervais impersonator.) Kari Paul offered an accurate depiction of a typical LinkedIn experience on Quartz after its sale was announced: “Last week, a stranger I have never met or worked with endorsed me for WordPress and French.”

It makes sense that interactions on LinkedIn would be somewhat ham-handed, given that its users tend to skew older, according to a 2015 Pew survey. But its lack of playfulness has as much to do with how the network was originally designed as it does with the people who use it. According to Marc Smith, the director of the Social Media Research Foundation, LinkedIn’s original purpose — connecting employers with potential employees — ensured a certain level of eerie uniformity from the beginning.

“LinkedIn does not encourage you to take a picture of yourself holding a red Solo cup,” he said in an interview. “It encourages you to put on a tie or a nice blouse and dress and take a picture of yourself that shows you actually work for a living. The workplace, as we have designed it, is not the place for human expression.”

As a result, there’s a hesitancy among users to stand out in a way that might set off alarms to the panopticon view of recruiters crawling the site. But Davis argues that this does not exclude LinkedIn from some of the same rituals as users on Facebook and Twitter. It just ensures that, rather than sharing an offbeat Donald Trump meme, for instance, a LinkedIn member will instead post an inspirational quote about encouraging excellence in the workplace.

“I would agree a lot of internet culture does not find its fullest expression on LinkedIn, true, but a lot of internet culture can be found on LinkedIn,” he said. “You can find the conversations, the message boards, the photos, the videos, the liking. But if people are liking things, it’s a ‘We just exceeded third-quarter expectations’ like. There’s a lot of that, but it tends not to have cats.”

Even if a person was willing to look past LinkedIn’s purpose as a networking site, the company’s “real name” policy, which discourages the use of a username, acts as another obstacle to fostering a community that thrives on irreverent humor.

“I think people are worried about their online reputation and if they’re going to be super silly, they’re going to want to use a pseudonym,” said Sebastian Benthall, a Ph.D. candidate at Berkeley’s School of Information who published a study on Weird Twitter in 2013.

Benthall also notes that the social network is based on varying degrees of restricted access: The amount of people you can see, direct message, and stalk without leaving internet crumbs is directly connected to how much you’re willing to pay per month.

“Weird communities arise in commercial social network sites when there is enough slack in their design to allow for creative repurposing of the site,” Benthall said. “[LinkedIn]’s not really a public forum, so the most you could do is have a funny profile.”

Theoretically, making personal connections with strangers is what LinkedIn’s approximately 2 million interest-based groups are for. The company usually generates a list of group recommendations based on your profile and past experience. But if you’re interested in browsing, the featured suggestions on its directory page reads like a mix between boring career fair booth and sketchy Craigslist listing: “Oil & Gas Careers,” “TED: Ideas Worth Spreading — Unofficial,” and “★ RECRUTADORES — VAGAS, EMPREGOS, OPORTUNIDADES, ESTÁGIOS, NETWORKING, EXECUTIVOS ★VAGAS GRATUITAS★.” Even the funnier, Yahoo Answers–esque stuff is clearly just the work of clueless users. Take the “be who you are and not what people want” group. Or “how to get off oxycodone.”

The few who join the network with the explicit purpose of being funny or weird seem to languish in their own obscurity. Take, for instance, the LinkedIn profile of Vincent Adultman, a character on the animated show BoJack Horseman that the main character suspects is just three kids stacked on top of each other, pretending to be an adult. His legitimately funny presence on LinkedIn — which includes detailed work history experience and posts like “Talk to Strangers Even Though Mommy Says Not To” — is the social network’s equivalent to a novelty Twitter account (i.e. “@BronxZoosCobra” or “@InvisibleObama”). Yet poor Vincent has just a little more than 500 followers. LinkedIn’s acclaimed data science team — which has been laser focused on suggesting relevant professional interests and people in common over the years — has simply never prioritized unearthing absurd gems like Mr. Adultman. (Case in point: I found him via a stray Quora thread.)

Even a direct search for weird content on LinkedIn brings you to mostly dead ends. When I searched the term “dank memes,” I found a single strange account for Meme Ogrelord, a “Senor [sic] Executive Producer of Dank Memes at Dank Memes Incorporated,” who seemed to have spent a considerable amount of time making a meme-themed LinkedIn profile. (Alas, he had just one connection). I used one of my five “InMail” credits from my Premium account to ask him if he’d be willing to chat for my story and he replied in full character.

“Memes (Particularly Of The Dank Variety) Are The Stepping Stones To The Promised Tomorrow,” he told me. “The Utopian Society We All Have Been Dreaming Of For So Long Has Finally Become Feasible With The Help Of Memes.”

It appears that LinkedIn begs to differ.