True to The Lean Startup principles, I’m conducting a retrospective to report what I’ve learned in the first six-week cycle of this humble effort to develop something useful. Here’s Lesson #5:

Is LinkedIn just the Yellow Pages for resumes? The Craigslist of careers? Is it social media? An online community? I honestly don’t know. I never really used LinkedIn (or any social media) until I started this project. Now that I’ve really experienced it, I think there are five dynamics that permeate the platform. This is the stuff that makes it feel so confusing and inauthentic. 

Validate thyself – there is a weird pressure that one feels the instant you really engage with the site; you need to get to the vaunted 500+ connection total. It’s like some kind of validation that you are well and truly connected. The number is purely arbitrary and doesn’t reflect the real numerical limits of social connection. So I’ve decided to stay at 499 (or less) forever; quality of connection over quantity any day.  

Everything feels like snooping – for a platform that is supposed to connect people, LinkedIn has a funny way of compelling people to snoop in Private Mode. I fell for this at first, too, because it really does feel weird when you just want to check up on someone. What’s this all for if you have to willfully hide in private mode just to see how a member of your network is doing? It’s like wearing a Zoro mask to say hello to a colleague in the hallway. 

The gravity of promotion – there are “gravity problems” in life and business, challenges that are so great that fighting against them is like fighting gravity. One of them on LinkedIn is the constant fight to not look like you’re promoting something—including yourself.  

The currency of “Likes” – this is the worst. I have actually felt myself longing for, yearning for, hoping blindly for someone to  press the “like” button on my posts. I have also felt the hesitation to “like” what someone else has posted, as if I should hoard my endorsement, not tell a friend that they did something good. This is a very strange thing that I would never do anywhere else.  

You can only be what you already are – The saddest one of all. LinkedIn is just an expression of who you currently are as a member of the workforce. It doesn’t quite fit as the expression of what you are striving to become or what you already are in a broader sense. Yes, this isn’t Facebook but it’s difficult to even act the same casual way one acts in the workplace.

So What Is LinkedIn For?

It’s hard enough to be authentic with actual people, nevermind the challenge with a digital ecosystem full of avatars. Authenticity means showing more than your highlight reel or polished resume. It requires what Oliver Cromwell referred to as “warts and all.”

That doesn’t mean you merely wear your imperfections on your sleeve. The real difficulty of being authentic involves the genuine statement of your intent. You have to be open about what you want and reveal where you’re coming from. That’s the essence of what people call “being real”.

Doing such forces you to stand out in some small way. And standing out in any way other than your standard profile is very odd on LinkedIn. 

To be fair, I imagine LinkedIn wants its members to be themselves. They want us to create a genuine exchange over their network, a lively environment. But that’s a lot to ask since we feel like there are professional reputations on the line. So again, what is LinkedIn for?

It truly is just the Yellow Pages of resumes—a way to look up someone and contact them. It isn’t a great platform for anything else. I’m happy to see friends with their updates and quick posts but I stumble on those by accident; I don’t specifically go to LinkedIn for content.  

I go to Medium instead. That’s my next stop.

Conclusion

I didn’t realize that authenticity was the most crucial factor to this work.

I didn’t realize that it would be so inhibited by the LinkedIn platform.

I didn’t realize how much I disliked that platform—it’s a (necessary?) annoyance.

These are the biggest, and most inadvertent, lessons of my past six weeks.

On to the next.