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All LinkedIn with Nowhere to Go

In a jobs economy that has become something of a grim joke, nothing seems quite so bleak as the digital job seeker’s all-but-obligatory LinkedIn account. In the decade since the site launched publicly with a mission “to connect the world’s professionals to make them more productive and successful,” the glorified résumé-distribution service has become an essential stop for the professionally dissatisfied masses. The networking site burrows its way into users’ inboxes with updates spinning the gossamer dream of successful and frictionless advancement up the career ladder. Just add one crucial contact who’s only a few degrees removed from you (users are the perpetual Kevin Bacons in this party game), or update your skill set in a more market-friendly fashion, and one of the site’s 187 million or so users will pluck you from a stalled career and offer professional redemption. LinkedIn promises to harness everything that’s great about a digital economy that so far has done more to limit than expand the professional prospects of its user-citizens.

In reality, though, the job seeker tends to experience the insular world of LinkedIn connectivity as an irksome ritual of digital badgering. Instead of facing the prospect of interfacing professionally with a nine-figure user base with a renewed spring in their step, harried victims of economic redundancy are more likely to greet their latest LinkedIn updates with a muttered variation of, “Oh shit, I’d better send out some more résumés.” At which point, they’ll typically mark the noisome email nudge as “read” and relegate it to the trash folder.

Which is why it’s always been a little tough to figure out what LinkedIn is for. The site’s initial appeal was as a sort of self-updating Rolodex—a way to keep track of ex-coworkers and friends-of-friends you met at networking happy hours. There’s the appearance of openness—you can “connect” with anyone!—but when users try to add a professional contact from whom they’re more than one degree removed, a warning pops up. “Connecting to someone on LinkedIn implies that you know them well,” the site chides, as though you’re a stalker in the making. It asks you to indicate how you know this person. Former coworker? Former classmate? Fine. “LinkedIn lets you invite colleagues, classmates, friends and business partners without entering their email addresses,” the site says. “However, recipients can indicate that they don’t know you. If they do, you’ll be asked to enter an email address with each future invitation.”

You can try to lie your way through this firewall by indicating you’ve worked with someone when you haven’t—the equivalent of name-dropping someone you’ve only read about in management magazines. But odds are, you’ll be found out. I’d been confused, for instance, about numerous LinkedIn requests from publicists saying we’d “worked together” at a particular magazine. But when I clicked through to their profiles, I realized why they’d confidently asserted this professional alliance into being: the way to get to the next rung is to pretend you’re already there. If you don’t already know the person you’re trying to meet, you’re pretty much out of luck.

This frenetic networking-by-vague-association has bred a mordant skepticism among some users of the site. Scott Monty, head of social media for the Ford Motor Company, includes a disclaimer in the first line of his LinkedIn bio that, in any other context, would be a hilarious redundancy: “Note: I make connections only with people whom I have met.” It’s an Escher staircase masquerading as a career ladder.

On one level, of course, this world of aspirational business affiliation is nothing new. LinkedIn merely digitizes the core, and frequently cruel, paradox of networking events and conferences. You show up at such gatherings because you want to know more important people in your line of work—but the only people mingling are those who, like you, don’t seem to know anyone important. You just end up talking to the sad sacks you already know. From this crushing realization, the paradoxes multiply on up through the social food chain: those who are at the top of the field are at this event only to entice paying attendees, soak up the speaking fees, and slip out the back door after politely declining the modest swag bag. They’re not standing around on garish hotel ballroom carpet with a plastic cup of cheap chardonnay in one hand and a stack of business cards in the other.

LinkedIn does have some advantages over the sad old world of the perennially striving, sweating minor characters in Glengarry Glen Ross. After all, it doesn’t require a registration fee or travel to a conference center. Sometimes there are recruiters trolling the profiles on the site. It’s a kinder, gentler experience for the underemployed. It distills the emotionally fraught process of collapsing years of professional experience onto a single 8½ x 11 sheet of paper into the seemingly more manageable format of the online questionnaire. In the past year, the site has made the protocols of networking even more rote, allowing users to select from a list of “skills” and, with a few clicks, declare their proficiency. “You can add up to 50 relevant skills and areas of expertise (like ballet, iPhone and global business development),” chirps an infobox on the site.

A century or so ago, critics worried that the rise of scientific management in the industrial workplace would deskill the American worker; now, in the postindustrial order of social-media-enabled employment, skills (or, you know, quasi-skills) multiply while jobs stagnate. Sure, you probably won’t get hired at most places on the basis of your proficiency in ballet—but if you’re so inclined, you can spend some of your ample downtime on LinkedIn endorsing the iPhone skills of select colleagues and acquaintances.

These Thoughts for Hire

LinkedIn’s architects are self-aware enough to know that, even in the age of social-media following, some of us must be leaders. In October, the site enabled users to “follow” a handpicked set of “thought leaders.” LinkedIn has given this “select group” permission “to write long-form content on LinkedIn and have their words and sharing activity be followed by our 187 million members.” So far, 190 leaders have made the cut. The “most-followed influencers” are familiar names to anyone who’s ever killed time in an airport bookstore: Richard Branson, Deepak Chopra, Arianna Huffington, Tony Robbins.

The animating vision behind the thought leader initiative is that great digital-economy will-o’-the-wisp known as the flattened hierarchy. “It used to be that the only way to hear what someone had to say on LinkedIn was to ask to connect with them. And you’re supposed to only do that with people you know and have done business with,” Isabelle Roughol, one of LinkedIn’s editors, wrote me in an email. “The average professional won’t chat at the coffee machine with someone like [Virgin Group founder] Richard Branson, but we still want to know how he got his start in business, how he manages his team or why he thinks private space travel is the future. That’s the space our ‘Influencers’ program fills.”

The worst of the advice reads like management-speak Mad Libs.

Still, there’s a distinctly perfunctory quality to the offerings of the charmed circle of “influencers.” They often simply repost things on LinkedIn that they’ve written (or had ghostwritten, in some cases) for their personal sites. Their advice—on LinkedIn, “thoughts” almost always equal “advice”—ranges from the semipractical (embrace three digital media trends; get all of your employees on social media) to the lofty (be on a mission that doesn’t suck; search for a noble purpose) to the downright confusing (how to create time; how do careers really work?). The worst of the bunch reads like management-speak Mad Libs, such as this bit of gobbledygook about the career success ladder: “Failure to make a decision is often worse than making the wrong one. This ability is developed and honed over time based on both successes and failures,” writes one thought leader, who includes a complicated chart that is in no way ladder-like. Cue the vacuous, grammar-challenged sloganeering: “High-level thinking, problem-solving and critical decision-making is the cornerstone of long-term success.”

A few influencers venture into the realm of politics, where apparently the appeal of conventional wisdom is just as strong as in the business world. How does the CEO of Panera Bread suggest we end gridlock in Congress? Heed a few Thomas Friedman quotes about how bad partisanship is, and then throw our support behind the “nonpartisan” advocacy group No Labels, which promotes relentlessly centrist agendas in the service of publicizing reliably unelectable centrist candidates. Even this wan brand of opinion-making is suffused with LinkedIn’s trademark brand of acute striver-anxiety. On the one hand, it seems risky to put forth political views on a networking site, where the goal is to appeal to as many potential employers (or followers) as possible. On the other hand, weighing in on topics beyond the realm of management is also a way to prove you’re justified in using such profile buzzwords as “creative” and “analytical.” The higher synthesis, of course, is a weirdly totalizing kind of centrism: keep your political ideas as anodyne as your business aphorisms, and all the recruiters and CEOs out there will be reassured that you are safely tucked into the zone of acceptable consensus.

Still, most of the thought-leading counsel on offer at LinkedIn boils down to search-engine-friendly, evergreen nuggets of business advice. An article titled “Three Pieces of Career Advice That Changed My Life” is illustrated with stock photos showing street signs at the corner of “Opportunity Blvd.” and “Career Dr.” At this very promising intersection, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner explains that readers can do anything they put their minds to, that technology will come to rule everything, and that changing lives is a better goal than merely pushing paper around. This set of warmed-over management nostrums is one of the all-time top five “influencer posts” on the site. Sure, the post’s author is the site’s CEO. But the appeal runs deeper than that. Listicles take the LinkedIn promise of a cleaner, neater networking experience and apply it to your entire career. Their reassuring, vague steps provide comfort and the illusion of control, in just the same way that we call on carnival fortunetellers or syndicated astrologists to dispense useless vagaries that sound concrete, helpful, and familiar. This brand of advice makes even more sense on LinkedIn than it does in business-to-business publications or corporate newsletters, since it provides a perfect antidote to the inherent depression of the fruitless job search.

And in the frenetic world of just-in-time professional connectivity, LinkedIn’s vision of the listicled life is more and more the norm. Just take, for example, another recent influencer post by another social media guru, Dave Kerpen, who helms a network concern bearing the ominously bland name of Likeable Local. In reviewing his own tenure as a regular contributor to the LinkedIn news site, LinkedIn Today, Kerpen runs the pageview numbers and, in short order, blows his own mind. The twenty-eight posts he has contributed since the fall of 2012, Kerpen reports, “have generated over 5 million page views, a staggering number by any standard.” But the real wonderment here, he observes, is the ridiculously high level of reader engagement he’s earned in the site’s “new media empire”: on average, he’s logged “over 600 comments and over 10 thousand shares per post. My top post, ‘11 Simple Concepts to Become a Better Leader,’ has generated over 5 thousand comments.”

Of course it has. If you click over to Kerpen’s all-time most commented post, you see yet another listicle culled from the chapter headings of his book Likeable Business. There’s this comically self-deconstructing morsel from Oprah Winfrey, for instance: “I had no idea that being your authentic self could make me as rich as I’ve become. If I had, I’d have done it a lot earlier.” Or perhaps you’d prefer something more aggressive and imperial in the way of business advice, such as this Navy SEAL mantra: “Individuals play the game, but teams beat the odds.” Not quite spiritual enough? All right, how about G. K. Chesterton, reminding you that “gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder”?

Kerpen’s self-singing fable of media success, in other words, ultimately has a chilling moral—you can achieve unparalleled likeability on LinkedIn’s mammoth media platform, but at the considerable cost of surrendering anything that might remotely resemble a coherent or challenging message to the LinkedIn masses.

An entire subgenre of thought leadership is devoted to the cult of Apple. (Kerpen’s mandatory inspirational quote from Steve Jobs: “The only way to do great work is to love the work you do.”) A post by “Technology Futurist, Innovation Expert, Business Strategist, Bestselling Business Author, Keynote Speaker” Daniel Burrus instructs would-be Steve Jobses to “take the time to think both short-term and long-range. Build your future by competing on things other than price, and by asking the right questions, especially when it comes to consumers.” Never mind that Burrus hasn’t built an Apple-like company; such perorations are like the incantation of a devotional prayer: they call down the mercies of a remote techno-deity in order to ritually cleanse the grubbier aspirations of the business-strategizing, keynote-speaking class. And in the same circular fashion, the point of encouraging users to connect and follow and exchange points of view on LinkedIn is to marshal those users behind the simple, world-conquering faith in networked connectivity. The thoughts that lead the LinkedIn experience, in other words, are usually subtle advertisements for the LinkedIn experience. Or not-so-subtle come-ons: one post promises to help people answer the question “What should I do with my life?” in three steps—by using LinkedIn.

The most hectically advertised spiritual advisers on the site all support some version of this worldview. According to the site’s leaderboard, Virgin founder Branson was the first thought leader to crack one million followers. Branson’s most shared and commented post is tantalizingly headlined “Five Top Tips to Starting a Successful Business.” It’s not crazy that people on all rungs of the career ladder would want to hear from Branson: the billionaire has undoubtedly learned a few things during his rise to the top. But take the click-bait and you get a list of bland encouragements rather than practical advice. Listen more than you talk. Keep it simple. Take pride in your work. Have fun. And, if you should fail, rip it up and start again.

Who’s to say whether the followers of these tirelessly flogged thought leaders—the folks eagerly inviting others to connect—find this information useful? Surely the gospel of LinkedIn life improvement isn’t dramatically enhancing their immediate job search. But on the devotional level, it probably fuels their fantasies of conquering their cluttered professional playing fields in the fashion of that great business demigod Steve Jobs. If the poor, as John Steinbeck once observed, see themselves as temporarily embarrassed millionaires, it seems fair to assume that on LinkedIn, followers see themselves as temporarily embarrassed thought leaders.

How to Click Friends and Influence People

To understand the appeal of the site, it’s necessary to reach back to the beginnings of the modern American gospel of success. The roots of the LinkedIn vision of prosperity-through-connectivity lie in the circular preachments of the positive-thinking industry, a singularly American gloss on the sunny doctrine of achieving personal success through inoffensive sociability. This modern branch of the thought-leading discipline began about a century ago, in true rags-to-riches fashion, when an unsuccessful door-to-door salesman named Dale Carnegie started teaching courses in public speaking at his local YMCA. Carnegie—Carnegay, actually, as it would be another seven years before he changed his name to match that of the famous industrialist—was an unlikely motivational speaker. He was kind of a loser. After graduating from the Warrensburg State Teachers’ College in Missouri in 1908, he sold correspondence courses, bacon, soap, and lard. But he found the work insufficiently glamorous, and after saving up $500, he moved to New York in 1911 to pursue his dream of becoming an actor. He failed. Nor could he make a go of it as a truck salesman or a novelist. He decided that the best path to success was to tell other people how to find it.

The roots of the LinkedIn vision of prosperity-through-connectivity lie in the circular preachments of the positive-thinking industry.

Carnegie’s lectures at the Y earned him a modicum of success and prompted him to publish The Art of Public Speaking in 1915. But it wasn’t until the country was in the grip of the Great Depression that Carnegie’s ideas began to really catch on. Simon & Schuster published his best-known book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, in 1936, the same year Dorothea Lange snapped her iconic photo of a despondent migrant mother named Florence Owens Thompson. The book was an instant success, and the enduring appeal of How to Win Friends makes it clear that Carnegie touched a powerful nerve in the nation’s professional id: the book spent years on the bestseller list and still sells hundreds of thousands of copies a year in the United States alone.

Carnegie, of course, didn’t stop with How to Win Friends. He founded a conventional-wisdom empire, churning out books, conferences, and lectures. The pamphlets handed out at Carnegie courses had titles that are indistinguishable from the thought leadership now being followed on LinkedIn: How to Get Ahead in the World Today, How to Put Magic in the Magic Formula,How to Make Our Listeners Like Us,How to Save Time and Get Better Results in Conferences,The Little Recognized Secret of Success. “The ideas I stand for are not mine,” Carnegie once said to critics of How to Win Friends. “I borrowed them from Socrates. I swiped them from Chesterfield. I stole them from Jesus. And I put them in a book. If you don’t like their rules, whose would you use?”

Carnegie-style aphorisms and self-esteem-boosting quotes were once relegated to the world of management conferences, leadership training seminars, and the business-to-business press. These days, along with everyone else who’s publishing the modern equivalent of Oprah-style self-help dressed up as business advice, you can find the Dale Carnegie Training company on LinkedIn.

Wish Fulfillment as Business Model

Nowadays the gospel of motivationalism is so universal that Americans don’t even recognize that we live in a golden age of positive thinking. At a time when user-generated content is king and the economy is in the doldrums, there have never been so many aspiring Carnegies with so many outlets permitting them to push their own particular brand of techno-futurism, business essentialism, or practical optimism. In this sense, LinkedIn is much more a thought-following enterprise than a thought-leading one. Outlets such as Forbes and the Harvard Business Review, which were always home to business tips alongside big-think pieces on the future of American capitalism, have thrown open the gates to amateur motivational speakers and self-styled consultants who bring in pageviews and in exchange are granted the illusion of a rapt audience.

Most are guys like Greg McKeown. It’s hard to tell, based on his LinkedIn profile, exactly what he does. Until recently, his profile picture was a photo of his face framed by two artfully held Sharpies—a set piece that conveyed the look and feel of Office Space, but without the sarcasm. (It has since been replaced with a photo of him gesticulating in front of a whiteboard.) “I write and speak around the world on the importance of living and leading as an Essentialist,” he explains. His personal site bears his own name in the URL but has the branding and plural language of “a company with the strategic intent to inspire 1,000,000 people to take a step toward a higher point of contribution by the end of 2014.” His résumé is full of consulting gigs and courtesy titles; in 2010 he cowrote a book called Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter. He links out to the website of his one-man consulting company, THIS Inc., which hawks nebulous, though evidently “essential” services; he vows to help clients “Evaluate the trivial many from the vital few, Eliminate the nonessentials and . . . Enable the team to almost effortlessly execute on the essentials.” He’s a professional thought leader, and LinkedIn has recognized him as such, letting him through the gates to join the ranks of the Chopras and Bransons.

For aspirants such as McKeown, who presumably have yet to accumulate a fortune, thought leadership is a hopeful self-fulfilling prophecy. Just start leading and the thoughts will come. Then the wealth will follow.

If it seems like anyone could do what McKeown is doing, you’re right. LinkedIn allows any user to apply to be an influencer. In exchange for a theoretical mass readership of millions upon millions of eager job seekers, all you have to do is provide LinkedIn with content and pageviews. “Our members are looking for professionals who can write engaging original posts and share links to relevant, thought-provoking presentations, articles, polls, SlideShares, videos, infographics, and more,” the site says. “Think you’ve got what it takes? To apply, please complete the form below and we’ll be in touch within a week.” The form doesn’t ask you about your greatest accomplishments or leadership experience. It doesn’t require you to list how much money you’ve made or the companies you’ve founded. It asks you about which topics you’d blog about and which links you want to share today.

But that’s another beautiful thing about thought leadership: unlike many of the jobs you might pursue on LinkedIn, no experience is required for the gig. Sure, according to Forbes, “it’s a truism that thought leaders tend to be the most successful individuals or firms in their respective fields.” But Forbes itself is run by a silver-spoon publishing scion whose only real achievement has been a pair of laughably overfunded, failed runs at the GOP presidential nomination. In the same vein, actual business acumen and leadership skills usually take a back seat in the LinkedIn system to simple digital renown. Some of the best-known gurus on the site have had the most success in the realm of . . . thinking about stuff. Take the case of one of the most popular thought leaders on LinkedIn: Newark Mayor Cory Booker. He has 1.3 million Twitter followers. He’s appeared on The Daily Show. He wrote a bestselling book. His picture is highlighted alongside other LinkedIn-approved thought leaders like Barack Obama, Guy Kawasaki, and Ari Emanuel. Meanwhile, back in Newark, the city has laid off a thousand workers. Crime and unemployment are up. The city’s cash-strapped schools are still struggling, under the control of the state. Newark’s “finances remain so troubled that it cannot borrow to fix its antiquated water system,” reports the New York Times. It’s tough to be both a thought leader and an action leader—which is presumably why Booker is now vying for a yet more prominent thought-leading spot, as U.S. senator from New Jersey in a notoriously do-nothing Congress.

Thanks to such fast-and-louche appropriations of the mantle of thought leadership, even its apostles are denouncing the fast-multiplying apostasies that dilute the essence of the one true faith. “In only 15 years we’ve managed to dumb down the idea of thought leadership from someone who has changed their area of business to someone who can create a marketing plan that implants the idea that they are a thought leader,” wrote sales guru Paul McCord in 2009. “When everybody’s one, nobody is one.”

Every once in awhile, though, you’ll run across some decent practical advice on LinkedIn. A post about avoiding frequent-flier miles scams—another one of LinkedIn’s top “influencer” posts of all time—has some unwittingly trenchant advice for aspiring thought leaders. “First,” author Christopher Elliott explains, “only a few people at the top of the scam benefit in any meaningful way. And second, many of those elite program apologists will do anything to defend the system that has rewarded them.” You don’t say.