Like many addictions, it started out innocently: I signed up to LinkedIn.
I was twenty-four and had just emerged from my first job into unemployment and a job market that seemed no more clear or stable than when I’d entered. The Australian Arts sector had been brutally defunded, the book industry was under threat, and I found myself among a community of young arts workers wondering what came next. Seeking out advice, parents and employers and friends all had conflicting ideas on how to get ahead: stay in a job for a minimum of two years, jump every six months, start your own business, move overseas, go corporate, follow your dreams.
It was in this disoriented state that I finally caved and created my LinkedIn profile. I filled in my work experience, my qualifications and awards. Standing against the white wall of my living room in my mother’s blouse, I took a ‘professional headshot’. Under interests, I checked the auto-suggested fields of ‘Arts and Culture’ and ‘Animal Welfare’. Over the next few weeks I connected with friends, my parents’ friends, a few colleagues from my previous workplace. I ‘endorsed’ the skills of a few, and in turn, they ‘endorsed’ mine. As time went on, and I remained out of a job, I turned on email alerts, began checking my profile daily, and then twice daily. Soon enough I was spending hours each day trawling the site. I had time – I was anxious and broke. In my desperation, LinkedIn seemed to hold the answers, if only I looked long and hard enough.
For a millennial generation plagued with career uncertainty, LinkedIn is a space of seeming authority, stability and accessibility for an emerging workforce desperately seeking such assurances. With its linear job timelines and standardised information displays, the site imposes structure on a job market that seems increasingly disordered and unstable. By breaking down career progress into units of shareable information, it creates the illusion of experience that can be measured, shared and even replicated across industries. With its professional employer pages and ‘endorsed’ skillsets, it further creates an illusion of authority – a sense of moderation and certification –legitimising the public display of personal job history and information.
While such a professional and seemingly formal space could be dry and dull, LinkedIn succeeds in appealing to the personal by cleverly transposing the social media model to a professional setting. LinkedIn places the user at the centre of his or her professional ‘network’ – putting faces to the face-less and impenetrable job market – and is able to convert this information into the familiar and inherently interesting currency of people and relationships.
This is a platform where CEO’s illustrious careers can be traced back to humble beginnings; where potential interviewers can be ‘lurked’; friends and colleagues’ job developments monitored. Where a simple search can return the kinds of people currently working at an organisation of interest – not only their skills, experience, volunteer work, but the people themselves, putting a smiling face to success. By personalising the impersonal and creating the illusion of a ‘close knit’ and supportive community, LinkedIn engages us on an emotional level, one that speaks to our very basic feelings of pride and shame, vanity and jealousy.
Over those months, LinkedIn became an active trigger for my anxiety. I suffered panic attacks, my depression worsened. I became overwhelmed with the sense that everyone I knew, everyone out there, was successful, happy and progressing in their careers. The sense that I was standing alone on the outside looking in, denied access to this fast-tracked careerist highway through my own lack of enterprise and enthusiasm.
This of course, is the both the power and danger of LinkedIn. Its ability to de-contextualise and de-personalise success; to capitalise on the accessibility of personal information at the expense of personal integrity. Like all successful social media enterprises, the appeal of LinkedIn lies in its capacity to feed our culture of status anxiety and surveillance; a culture of documenting, manipulating and displaying our personal brand of success, while taking at face value the successfully cultivated brands of others.
Young Instagram and Facebook users are already attuned to the constant performance of personality and success of their peers; LinkedIn takes this a step further and projects professionalism onto the exchange of these identities. Beneath the guise of a ‘professional space’, the Facebook ‘friend’ becomes the ‘connection’, ‘liking’ becomes the ‘endorsement’, the social ‘humble-brag’ becomes the certifiable ‘career update’. Social lurking turns to career idealisation, in a sphere that actively feeds and reinforces status anxiety for a generation already overburdened with feelings of inadequacy.
This superficial brand of networking might be permissible if the professional benefits were tangible. The reality, however, is often less than inspiring: headhunting is frequently auto-generated and misguided, connection requests mostly social or spam, and messages largely from targeted sponsored advertisers, training courses, or overpriced conferences. When the veneer of professional development is stripped away, what is left? Yet another platform for building and sharing our personal brand of success, and in turn, feeling inadequate over the consumption of others’ narratives.
It was months later, when I began re-integrating myself back into the ‘real world’ that the constructed fantasy of my ‘LinkedIn working world’ began to crumble. People, I found, variously hated their jobs, got lucky, had personal contacts, or took two years out to do something they loved. Their jobs were less grand, less stimulating, less lucrative, or conversely, more interesting, more impressive than they appeared on paper. They had worked in different times, different countries and circumstances. They were older than they looked in their profile pictures, more qualified than their selected CV suggested. They had personalities, life stories, experiences that made them the right candidates for a particular job at a particular time. It is this context that gets lost in translation on LinkedIn. Experience is flattened, simplified and standardised, in order to fit within our models of information trade and consumption.
Speaking to my parents over dinner one night, they told me how they grew up in almost total ignorance of the career trajectories of their peers. How jealous I was. It seems to me that now, in addition to being constantly tapped in to the personal lives of our peers – what they had for brunch, where they vacationed – we are also privy to each development of their career, and in turn expect our own progress to be seen and judged. It made me wonder how we would conduct ourselves if such processes were private? How much more room might we give ourselves to try and fail, to follow our gut, to indulge our interests, take time away, without being held publicly accountable for our progress? How much more efficient could we be if we worked together, rather than in direct and constant competition with each other?
A year on, I’m still trying to figure these questions out, unsure about what the future holds. Despite promises of ‘jobs and growth’, young people are still feeling the burden of increased casualisation of the workforce and expansion of unpaid labour. Given the opportunity I still ask parents and employers and friends their advice on how to ‘get ahead’. The difference is that now I’ve formulated some of my own advice to offer in return: Save yourself the status anxiety. Ditch the LinkedIn account.