I love LinkedIn as a tool, and I write incessantly about it. I get frustrated with people who expect LinkedIn on its own to find them new jobs or new clients. I get irritated at LinkedIn invitation-spam and message-spam, especially when it comes in "since we're such good friends" wrapping.
I teach the use of LinkedIn to undergrads and grad students and grown-up job-seekers and entrepreneurs, and I run into bugs (they've got 'em) and inconsistencies and weirdnesses all over the site. I don't understand why there isn't an exploded, annotated sample LinkedIn profile to use as a guide in composing one's own profile. I don't understand why how-tos and hints aren't everywhere on LinkedIn. In that respect -- that LinkedIn is full of awesome features that most users have no clue exist, much less how to use -- I find the most contrast between LinkedIn's purpose (to help people connect and create opportunities individually and together) and form. The site's purpose is human and inspiring. The form is transactional, data-driven and clunky.
Although I adore LinkedIn and sing its praises, there are several jarring ways in which LinkedIn makes clear that its product folks don't understand how real people operate. I've listed five examples below. As a fan, I'm avid for LinkedIn to become more human-friendly over time. I hope this list will help spark that conversation.
People are complex, and their backgrounds are nonlinear.
One of the first fields a new LinkedIn user is instructed (make that compelled) to fill is his or her Industry listing. The requirement to pick just one industry throws new LinkedIn users for a loop in every workshop I teach.
It's daunting to have to define yourself as a person who works in one industry, and worse, it's anachronistic. People switch industries all the time and tons of people couldn't give a fig what industry they work in -- they're connected to the function or some other aspect of their work more than they are to the industry classification. Forcing people to pick one industry (without even the option of "Other" or "it's complicated") starts the left-brain-mentality ball rolling for a new LinkedIn user.
To further complicate things, the industry listing on LinkedIn is a weird mishmash of industries, sub-industries and functions. Some of the most obvious industry choices are missing. Consulting isn't one of your choices, for instance. Management Consulting is on the list, but Management Consultants aren't the only consultants around. How can LinkedIn not have noticed that many business people work across several different industries? Is it really helpful or necessary to pick just one?
I am certain that database design has gotten more sophisticated since I launched my LinkedIn profile in 2003. I reckon that shoving that Industry decision in a new LinkedIn user's face has sent more would-be LinkedIn users packing than any other setup task. It would be worth LinkedIn's time to look at the abandonment that occurs in the new-user-setup process, right at that spot.
The second thing LinkedIn's product guys have forgotten about people is that people get weary.
The "People You May Know" listing popping up in your face day in and day out, or as often as you visit your LinkedIn homepage, is beyond tiring. It's obnoxious.
It's as though LinkedIn doesn't trust us to grow our own networks. They've got to shove these names at us, with no button in sight to turn the faucet of maybe-you-know-her? droplets off. If you try to send an Inmail message to one of those people (in order to reconnect as you recall that you don't have the slightly-familiar person's email address handy) LinkedIn will smack you down in one heartbeat.
No email address, you say? That's okay -- you can upgrade with a credit card here and now and connect to this person pronto! If this is the LinkedIn Revenue Committee's best plan for growing subscriptions, something is broken in the strategic plan.
LinkedIn has progressively lost sight of the fact that people prefer to be polite, when you allow them to
They want to use their good manners, or at least some of 'em do. LinkedIn often makes it difficult to be a polite networker.
For years, I gave speeches, wrote articles and published e-books admonishing people for sending boilerplate "Let's connect our networks" invitations on LinkedIn. I'd say "We have over one million words in the wonderful English language. Let's use some of them in a personal, lively LinkedIn invitation!"
In my book Happy About Online Networking: the Virtual-ly Simple Way to Build Professional Relationships, I even included a page of LinkedIn invitations in the style of The Sopranos, a Valley Girl, The Bible, and so on. I couldn't do that now. Most of the invite-a-friend-to-connect channels on LinkedIn (when you download your Gmail contacts, for instance) no longer give a user the opportunity to write a personalized invitation.
Why not? Why would LinkedIn remove that functionality, unless they really don't understand that people, when given the choice, like to be well-mannered communicators?
LinkedIn has forgotten that people are not collections of attributes.
I like the new Skills listing on LinkedIn, but really -- you're going to ask me "Does John Smith know M & A?" as though M & A is its own, binary thing. I can see asking someone "Can John Smith, to your knowledge, fold his tongue into a taco shape?" where the answer is either Yes or No. But really -- "Does John Smith know M & A?" is ridiculous.
That application of the word (and notion) "Skills" to this kind of word-matching, Yes/No endorsement trivializes people, business, and the whole idea of learning. The complicated and esoteric skills we acquire in business aren't Pokemon cards to accumulate and trade and vote on. It's ridiculous and junior-high-schoolish to ask people to vouch for one another on the basis of one-word constructs like Writing, a la, "That Joyce, she's really got the writing thing down!"
More chits and checkmarks are the last thing LinkedIn users need. (What do they need? The opportunity to share content and community more easily and fluidly across the site -- but that's a topic for another column.)
The last human attribute LinkedIn has lost sight of is the tendency of people, when you put a transactional opportunity in front of them, to maximize the transaction.
The knock on LinkedIn here is this: just because a database allows a certain capture of information or some correspondence between records to be noticed and highlighted, doesn't mean that that is a good thing to do. I haven't seen it on the site lately, but there used to be a feature like "get a reference on someone right now!" -- the idea being that you could get a back-door reference on someone you were thinking about doing business with or hiring in your firm. Didn't LinkedIn ever think, when that feature was being discussed, of the ultra-sensitive nature of so many stealth job searches, and the dire consequences for an unhappy-but-employed job seeker if his or her tyrant boss found out about the under-the-radar job hunt? Or did they not care, figuring that all's fair in love, war and business?
How can you provide a feature that makes it easy for one friend to ask another to extend an introduction to a third person, without a word on the communication implications of introductions, or how one might walk into that sometimes-scary interpersonal arena?
The feature exists, but the guidance is nil. It's no wonder that ham-fisted, transactional introduction requests fly around LinkedIn night and day. ("Hey Liz, can you introduce me to your client at Acme Explosives? I found your profile and I connected with you so you could do that for me.") I could write two or three books about off-the-wall LinkedIn requests I've gotten, but I don't blame the people who made those requests. The site itself enables the contact but is silent on the topic of when, where, how, what and why to make those contacts in a way that strengthens relationships, and doesn't weaken or destroy them.
I like using LinkedIn, but I get frustrated at its social ineptitude. I wish the urge to technologize human interactions could be tempered more often with a focus on the human interactions themselves -- the soft and squishy side of online networking and collaboration -- and an appreciation for the fact that the good stuff, the trust that enables sites like LinkedIn to do what they do so well, is never found in the database or on the screen.
Follow Liz Ryan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/humanworkplace