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Online commodification

LinkedIn’s unsolicited endorsement feature turns its users into a product.

india Updated: Jan 01, 2013 21:53 IST

There’s a joke going the rounds about LinkedIn, which is a kind of Facebook for corporate types. It goes like this. First man (smugly): “I’m on LinkedIn, you know?” Second man: “Really? I had no idea you were looking for a job.”

LinkedIn was launched in May 2003, currently has around 180 million registered users worldwide and is available in 17 languages but — interestingly — not Chinese.

The ostensible purpose of the site is to allow its users to maintain a list of contact details of people with whom they have some sort of relationship. Members can also upload their CVs and maintain profiles designed to puff their achievements, experience, etc, which is what leads to jokes such as the one just quoted. I’ve noticed, for example, that whenever I hear that an acquaintance’s employment status is changing, I brace myself for an invitation to ‘connect’ with them on LinkedIn.

All of which is harmless and maybe even helpful in the rat race of organisational life. I’m on LinkedIn not because I’m looking for a job but because, as someone who writes about this stuff, I believe one should eat one’s own dog food (as they used to say at Microsoft when insisting that employees should use the company’s software). I found the service annoyingly inflexible, for example, in the way it obliges one to force one’s employment history into a set of inflexible categories; its insistence on describing one’s working relationship with someone in terms of largely obsolete corporate job descriptions; and its inability to accept that one person might have several jobs.

But for much of my time on LinkedIn, things have been mercifully quiet. Recently, however, baffling emails from LinkedIn began to trickle into my inbox informing me that so-and-so had ‘endorsed’ me. Then the trickle turned into a steady stream. It seemed that everyone on my contact list had, somehow, been badgered into confirming that my online CV wasn’t fraudulent. I began to feel like some kind of electronic mendicant, trespassing on the goodwill of friends and colleagues alike. Finally, I became really irritated by the presumption of a service that, in an idiotic attempt to drum up activity, had been annoying people into effectively giving me a reference that I do not need.

It turns out that I’m not the only person to be annoyed by LinkedIn’s gambit. As my colleague Quentin Stafford-Fraser acidly observed in a lovely blog post: “Frankly, I wouldn’t, in the first place, link to anyone I thought was likely to lie on their CV. I’m old-fashioned enough to remember the days when a LinkedIn connection was meant to imply some sort of endorsement in itself.”

Touche! What obviously lies behind LinkedIn’s fatuous wheeze is an attempt to drum up page visits to its site. Each endorsement email is clearly designed to trigger a site visit by the gratified recipient, where he or she is invited to add the unsolicited endorsements to their profile. In the end, therefore, LinkedIn merely confirms once again the first law of internet services: if they’re free, then you are the product. So here’s a new year resolution for all netizens: try paying for online services and rediscover the liberation of being the customer who is always right.