If only we could all feel as relaxed at work as Tony Fernandes. In October last year, the Malaysian airline tycoon posted a photo of himself on LinkedIn getting a topless massage during a meeting. It had been “a stressful week”, he reasoned in the caption, though possibly not as stressful as seeing the photo reproduced and mercilessly mocked across the world’s media.
Welcome to LinkedIn, the weirdest of all the social networks, and the one that best reflects how the West’s professional-managerial class live their lives. True to its ostensible function – a place for shop talk and professional networking – it isn’t associated with striking personalities or high-stakes geopolitics. There is no Elon Musk circus at LinkedIn. Bans on the site are not being contemplated in America or carried out in Nepal, as with TikTok.
For much of its 21-year history, it was neglected. Clout-chasing journalists were addicted to Twitter. Those aspiring to a beautiful life Facetuned themselves on Instagram. LinkedIn was the equivalent of the births, marriages and deaths section of a broadsheet newspaper: a place to post about bare biographical outlines, like schools, degrees and jobs.
This dullness led on from a dull origin story. LinkedIn was founded in 2002 by five men, all of whom conscientiously finished their university studies rather than dropping out like Mark Zuckerberg, and all of whom, according to their well-maintained LinkedIn accounts, were already about a decade into their careers. The most notable of them is Reid Hoffman, an investor, sci-fi nerd and author of books including The Start-Up of You, a professional self-help guide which advises readers to consider themselves the “CEO of their own career”.
It’s a very LinkedIn-esque attitude – and like LinkedIn itself, it’s spread far beyond earnest executives and entrepreneurs. Something has changed. The social media also-ran is, somehow, becoming the platform of the day. Over the past decade, as nominally cooler platforms lost user engagement and became choked with spam, the volume of posts on LinkedIn spiked by 41 per cent. It now has almost a billion users, putting it in the top ten social media platforms.
All human life is here. Chinese spies attempt industrial espionage by using fake profiles to approach Western officials with business opportunities, and singles look for eligible partners by filtering profiles via education and occupation. For under-50s who no longer use Facebook, LinkedIn is the place to snoop on old friends, acquaintances and dating app matches. It is, at least for youngish professionals, the social media platform of record. (Instagram, with its private accounts and artful photo dumps, is too closed-off and stylised.)
This baton-pass has led to moments of slightly melancholic hilarity, like an old schoolmate you last saw throwing up in a Wetherspoons saying how thrilled they are about their latest deal. People post about extracurricular activities – marathons, charity work, team sports – in the hope of looking more well-rounded and, presumably, employable. The old rule about not putting your bronze Duke of Edinburgh award on your CV has been scrapped. Rather than distil your professional self to a single, sober sheet of A4, on LinkedIn you constantly embellish it with new connections and tenuously relevant social achievements. Your CV is now a living, breathing document that demands constant attention.
Feeding this beast drives many people mad. On LinkedIn, the posts from your own “connections” are complemented by viral ones from elsewhere, some of them truly bizarre. Insane LinkedIn posts are such a rich seam that multiple catalogues have sprung up: r/LinkedInLunatics on Reddit, and State of LinkedIn and Best of LinkedIn on X.
Here, you can find a woman who gives her children their pocket money in crypto, so they learn “how to play the long game”. A man compares himself to Michael Jordan because he’s nice to the person serving him at a Starbucks drive-thru; another says that his 12-year-old son accidentally hitting himself with a ukulele and throwing up on the school nurse is “a parable for the year 2023 in the sales/marketing SaaS/agency world”. A copywriter with shiny white teeth and a thousand-yard stare posts about working in “warlock mode”, with an all-meat diet and “zero hobbies”, and about how he sometimes writes naked for better performance, because “this truly isn’t Facebook folks”.
A running theme is candour, or at least the appearance of it. A Forbes “30 under-30” nominee reveals he went to mental hospital after a suicide attempt; a corporate lawyer posts a photo of himself lying on his home office floor with his sick four-year-old daughter, as compensation for all the broken promises to her when “unanticipated client emergencies” come up.
All these ups and downs of human life are framed in relation to work, often with the message that “there’s more to life than work”. Yet the need to say it at all – and to say it on LinkedIn, where the selling and buying of work drives the dance – shows you’re still on the boss’s terms. Indeed, if your boss is like Braden Wallake, CEO of the marketing start-up HyperSocial, they might fire you then post a tear-stained photo of their face, to show how sad it made them feel.
That people feel compelled to drag their personal selves into a professional space shows how work is becoming more invasive, rather than more “flexible” and “accommodating”, as the corporate world has sold it. Another of Hoffman’s books, The Alliance, even makes the case that employers and employees should consider themselves “allies” rather than engaged in a transactional relationship.
But the benefits of this new cuddly culture – working from home, or indeed a Mediterranean villa – pale in comparison to its increased demands: not just getting Slack notifications on your smartphone at midnight, but having to offer up emotion as well as labour. It’s not enough to complete the work; you must enjoy it, or at least be seen to do so.
LinkedIn is the perfect forum to do just that – to telegraph your deep spiritual fulfilment in your job. The platform has built its recent success on hosting this social performance, a performance that is now a defining fact of modern professional life. So come and join me on the world’s most interesting social network. It’d be great to connect.
[See also: Want to understand Gen Z? Watch MrBeast]