The Trouble with LinkedIn: Grey Goo

Dec 7, 2011
This article is part of a series called Opinion.

As much as we in recruiting enjoy the many benefits of LinkedIn, there is trouble in paradise. I’ve been a member of LinkedIn since the early days, to which my user ID (59572) will attest. Because LinkedIn numbers its members sequentially, if you do the math, you’ll find me counted among the first .06 percent of LinkedIn users. However, lately, I’ve noticed that what began as a business networking site is starting to feel more like a marketing and recruiting site dressed up as a social network.

Others suggest it more resembles the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing, a digital beast that devours our contacts and serves them up to large corporate clients willing to pay for what was once our data.

One cannot really blame LinkedIn for monetizing its business model. It does need to generate revenues to keep the lights on. But as it pursues recruiting revenues, as it encourages business professionals to use LinkedIn more as a marketing platform for “brand you,” as it prods users to pay for the privilege of networking and recruiting on LinkedIn, it is fair to wonder what value we get in return for that investment. While LinkedIn may remain a shiny object to which many recruiters feel inextricably drawn, we are in serious need of a reality check.

Earlier this year, LinkedIn reached two impressive milestones. It went public and it surpassed 100 million registered users. However, before LinkedIn went public, the social network filed a document with the SEC reporting a significant risk factor to LNKD investors: just how unreliable that 100 million figure is.

The number of our registered members is higher than the number of actual members, and a substantial majority of our page views are generated by a minority of our members. The number of registered members in our network is higher than the number of actual members because some members have multiple registrations, other members have died or become incapacitated, and others may have registered under fictitious names.

In other words, LinkedIn’s 100 million number is wildly inaccurate. However, attempting to pin down a more meaningful number is like nailing Jell-O to the the wall. That is why, dag-nab-it, LinkedIn is sticking with the 100 million member figure. Flawed though it may be, it contends it’s the only number it’s got.

Given the challenges inherent in identifying these accounts, we do not have a reliable system to accurately identify the number of actual members, and thus we rely on the number of registered members as our measure of the size of our network. Further, a substantial majority of our members do not visit our website on a monthly basis, and a substantial majority of our page views are generated by a minority of our members.

Recruiters: are you paying attention? A substantial majority of LinkedIn members rarely visit LinkedIn. That’s according to LinkedIn itself. Seriously, if that’s the case, one has to wonder how viable LinkedIn is as a social network. LinkedIn wonders as well:

If the number of our actual members does not meet our expectations or we are unable to increase the breadth and frequency of our visiting members, then our business may not grow as fast as we expect, which will harm our operating and financial results and may cause our stock price to decline.

The investor website Seeking Alpha has expressed concern about LinkedIn’s Marketing Solutions business — an advertising business unit that provides about a third of LinkedIn revenues — because “a website’s value to advertisers is directly proportionate to its number of active users.” Seeking Alpha accuses LinkedIn of being intentionally vague about its active user base and suggests we examine Quantcast reports on audience size instead. Only 1% of LinkedIn users are “addicts” who visit the site 30 or more times a month compared to Facebook’s 76%.

That disconnect may be starting to unsettle investors. The Wall Street Journal has taken note of recent drops in share price as early investors and executives unload shares in the wake of its May IPO. While many stocks weaken once employees are free to sell their shares after a company goes public, this appears to be much worse. In fact, Bloomberg contributing editor and investor Paul Kedrosky recently opined that LinkedIn’s precipitous decline is because LinkedIn has been broken from the beginning.

Kedrosky, who is also the editor of the popular financial blog Infectious Greed, notes that LinkedIn’s institutional investors make up only about 12% of its ownership, about half the percentage of stocks that enjoy strong institutional support.

Kedrosky’s article was called to my attention by Gary Stock, a longtime friend, technologist, and former code-breaking cryptanalyst with the National Security Agency. Stock participates in an invitation-only discussion group called “The TBTF Irregulars.” The group was formed by technology journalist/physicist Keith Dawson and also features the likes of David Weinberger, co-author of the seminal book on social networking The Cluetrain Manifesto and author of Small Pieces, Loosely Joined. It other words, this is a group that takes social networking theory very seriously.

Gary noted there has been growing chatter among The Irregulars about how LinkedIn may be losing its way. They observe that it is behaving more aggressively and hyperactively. Popup wizards online nag us to enhance our profiles, to give up more and more pieces of ourselves. One Irregular noted an email from LinkedIn to confirm a connection suddenly mistook him for a new user, though he’d been a member for years, and attempted to raid his address book to send out new invitations to connect on LinkedIn. When he demurred, his friends still strangely get hit with those email invites. In other words, even though he said “no,” LinkedIn’s technology apparently said “yes.”

Those hiccups may be due, in part, to the problems with iterative development, of rules and algorithms run amok as large platforms scale. However, it may be that LinkedIn is undergoing a personality change.

Stock theorizes that LinkedIn may have an “all-things-to-all-people” problem. He observes that LinkedIn once insisted we limit our networks to those whom we know and with whom we do business.

Gary being Gary, he took building quality connections in the beginning so seriously that when a college student that he knew attempted to connect with him on LinkedIn, he visited that student to explain personally why he could not make the student a connection: they had never worked together and were not even in the same industry. However, soon Gary realized that he did do business with the student. In fact, he had for several years. The student’s family sold produce at the local farmer’s market that Gary frequented. So Stock relaxed his rules, and it appears, LinkedIn has as well.

A network that first insisted that we network only with those we know has morphed into a place to network with those we want to know us.

That transformation has turned the LinkedIn data stream into a torrent of less-meaningful data. Eventually, Stock predicts, LinkedIn may need to divide itself into separate businesses or risk becoming a “melange of gray goo that nobody recognizes anymore.”

For non-nerds, “grey goo” is a phrase first coined by nanotechnologist Eric Drexler in the 1986 book Engines of Creation. Grey goo is the the result of an apocalyptic scenario in which rogue self-replicating robots consume all matter on earth while building more themselves. If it isn’t careful, LinkedIn may find itself turning into a large mass of replicating nanomachines (members) lacking large-scale structure (promiscuous networking). Yes, grey goo.

This article is part of a series called Opinion.
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