Andrew Ladd

*the author, not the hockey player

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The real problem with LinkedIn, according to Marxists

July 2, 2024

I recently bought a copy of The Influencer Factory: A Marxist Theory of Corporate Personhood on YouTube — irony of ironies, it was served to me in a targeted social ad — and I can’t remember the last time a book blew my mind quite so completely. I feel like this is how nineteenth century proletarians must have felt reading Marx: like it just perfectly describes every last tiny indignity of working life, even the ones you’d never fully noticed before.

The book itself, as the title suggests, is about YouTube influencers specifically, and its authors, Grant Bollmer and Katherine Guinness, make a really interesting case about how the most successful influencers are successful precisely because they’ve become a placeholder for their own business activities — with public influencer’s personas masking the incredibly large corporate machinery that actually enables their apparent influence as people. Along the way Bollmer and Guinness also present a bunch of really thoughtful Marxist readings of things like garages and warehouses, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Now, obviously, I’m not an influencer, and YouTube is not LinkedIn, but what really struck me, reading this in the midst of a concerted effort to “do better” on LinkedIn, was how perfectly a lot of the authors’ points carry across. In a lot of places, you can pretty much find-and-replace “YouTube” and “influencer culture” for “LinkedIn,” and end up with a description that is coherent, incisive, and pretty damning. For example:

“[LinkedIn] is a factory, in which countless individuals on the internet labour daily… manufacturing a commodity called ‘the self’… Rather than the sale of their labour power, the product is the very possibility that one is a unique individual with unique connections and unique abilities… And, at the same time, not one is meaningfully distinct from any other. As individuals, they are fungible and unnecessary.” (p.9)

And that’s just page nine. It gets much worse:

“Our point is not to long for a lost, unalienated community beyond capital. We seek to demonstrate [not just] that the basic presumptions of [LinkedIn]… are illusions, because to some degree everyone knows they are illusions. Rather, [on LinkedIn], we are told to continuously produce the self, and in producing the self, we will then be permitted to enter relations with others… This is how the real subsumption of community by capital appears: as the promise that by commodifying the self one can finally be full and free and real and unshackled from the impoverished social life brought about by capitalism itself.” (p.38)

The first part of this description is not that different to any other social media platform: what we’re all doing on LinkedIn is exerting a great deal of time, thought, and effort into constructing a public version of ourselves — a version that appears to actually spend most of the day having interesting and original thoughts — so that other people will want to connect with us. And this part of it, perhaps, is not that original as a critique, at least not to anyone who has ever had a social media account. We know that the friends we see having fabulous lives on Instagram are showing us a very selective, often very misleading version of what they actually do day-to-day, just as we know that the endless posts and comments and likes we make on LinkedIn are an extremely performative exercise in trying to build professional credibility. As Bollmer and Guinness say: “to some degree everyone knows they are illusions.”

The second part I think most social media users will also recognise, if they stop to think about it long enough, but it’s a bit bleak hearing it spelled out so bluntly: we go through all this performative nonsense because we’re pursuing some vague goal, like me, of “doing better” on social media, the presumed prize being a better life in the real world — when in fact it’s everyone posting on social media so much that’s making the real world worse to begin with. That dynamic becomes even more pernicious on LinkedIn, or YouTube, or any platform where constructing your public persona has a professional purpose — where, ultimately, you’re trying to monetise yourself.

Per the title of this post, the real problem with LinkedIn is that it has created a professional community requiring our constant labour to maintain — labour, by the way, that is not particularly enjoyable — all premised on the fantasy that if we only work hard enough at it we’ll be able to leave that slog behind. The prize you’re chasing on LinkedIn is to become so professionally successful that you can stop working — or, at the very least, so that you stop working so hard at cultivating your LinkedIn presence. You’re only there because you’re hoping it will make you richer, whether directly because you’re monetising your LinkedIn content, or indirectly because you’re hoping it will get you more contract work or a higher-paying job or investment in your start-up or whatever. And likewise, the professional acquaintances — or just plain strangers — for whom you’re producing yourself on LinkedIn are fundamentally there because they’re all hoping the same thing.

Sort of frustratingly, too, LinkedIn works in that respect, or seems to. There are people with whom I’ve crossed paths professionally for years without much incident — but once we’ve interacted on LinkedIn, once we’ve done that work of “continuously producing the self,” we’ve been “permitted to enter relations” with each other. We meet for coffee. We plan conference panels together. We comment on each other’s comments. We network. And a result, we find ourselves with more professional opportunities than we had before.

The problem is, those relationships, however real and pleasant they can sometimes be, are ultimately beholden to the constant digital labour of reproducing ourselves on a platform over which we have no real control. Sure, we can meet up IRL and text or email instead of using LinkedIn, but… Ultimately our professional relationships are now mediated by our willingness to make regular LinkedIn posts containing little scraps of insight, and to like and comment on each other’s posts publicly — and the result is that the bottom rather falls out of any meaningful human community we purport to be creating. If we post off topic, LinkedIn won’t reward it, and if we balk and stop posting altogether, well, so what? There are a hundred other “fungible and unnecessary” people just like us who the algorithm can swap in at a moment’s notice to continuing posting and liking and commenting:

“To be interesting [on LinkedIn] requires one to foster a minimal difference, a minimal distinction — to be different enough to attract attention but not different enough to attract a more significant (usually negative) aesthetic judgement… What is truly valued is not difference as such but difference’s inclusion in a generally homogenous stream of information, a stream of constantly differentiated yet substantively identical commodities. What is valued is the mere fact that there’s always more.” (p.97)

Again, this is not to criticise or minimise the many people with whom I’ve connected on LinkedIn (and anon), and whose company I’ve always enjoyed when I’ve been lucky enough to have it in person. And again, it’s also not to say that there isn’t a community of people in my industry who meet regularly at conferences, and for coffee, and who generally communicate outside LinkedIn. But to the extent that LinkedIn is also the digital representation of that same community, and to the extent that we probably all interact on LinkedIn at least as much as we do in person, that means our professional community is inescapably created and maintained, in part, by LinkedIn. (I will also say that many of the conversations I have in person at conferences involve discussing this or that recent thing one of us saw or wrote on LinkedIn.)

And that’s why LinkedIn is so insidious: because that “community” it creates doesn’t (and can’t) actually act like a real community. There’s no incentive to keep people in the community beyond their potential “just-different-enough” insight and their potential usefulness to you. If someone leaves, another person will instantly take their place, and the community will carry on more or less unchanged. Indeed, the very point of all the work we put into LinkedIn is that on some level we’re trying to leave it behind. What kind of community is that?

Yet at the same time, the community itself prevents any outrage at this state of affairs, or at how easily any one of us can be replaced — just as it prevents any effort to change it: because it’s impossible to fully identify with a community where even your best “friends” can be replaced in the blink of an eye with someone substantially identical. Even if this happens purely on LinkedIn and not in the “real” community underneath, it seems naïve to pretend that the real people won’t be affected in real ways if they can be so easily sloughed off online.

If you don’t believe me, here are Bollmer and Guiness quoting another author, Byung-Chul Han, saying roughly the same thing:

“The social is coming to be completely subordinated to self-production. Everyone is producing him- or herself in order to garner more attention. The compulsion of self-production leads to a crisis of community. The so-called ‘community’ that is today invoked everywhere is an atrophied community… It lacks the symbolic power to bind people together.” (p.35)

Can anyone really build a meaningful community on the back of a Facebook clone populated mostly by salespeople? Would anyone even want to? I sort of doubt it. Yet that’s what we’ve done, what we continue to do daily, and as a result we’re left with this:

“The fantasy that there is something called ‘community’ out there that hasn’t been subsumed; the fantasy that you can become famous, that you can become rich, that you are unique and special and different and deserve lots of money and expensive things because you exist as an individual; the fantasy that you can do these things and feel full and restored, not like a burned-out husk of a person; the fantasy that you can do it all from your own home or seated in your own car; the fantasy that this isn’t all an illusion… of selves, of identities, of people — and not intricately constructed performances that collapse labour power and identity in such a manner to lead to burnout and exhaustion.” (p.41)

Hopefully you’re not reading this on your commute.

Anyway, having identified this depressing state of affairs, what should we do about it? Bollmer and Guinness are a little light on solutions — classic Marxists, it’s all Kapital and hardly any Manifesto — but they leave us with a little nugget and so I guess that’s what we have to run with:

“The resistance to capital today must abandon ‘influence’ as a model of social relation.” (p.194)

This seems, charitably, sort of impossible — not because I’m too deep into influencer culture to see beyond it, but because “influence” is a lot more than just the number of likes your last social post got. When you tell a joke to a group of friends, aren’t you trying to influence them? When you recommend them a favourite book, aren’t you trying to influence them? If you go on a date with someone, aren’t you trying to influence them into having another date? If we abandon influence, what are we left with? To influence is to be human.

If you take a step back, though, to Jacques Camatte, upon whose work Bollmer and Guinness base that recommendation, there’s maybe still a kernel of a way forward. Camatte’s argument was that:

“[The] revolutionary must not identify [themselves] with a group but recognise [themselves] in a theory that does not depend on a group.” (quoted on p.193)

Elder Millennial though I might myself be, I see in this a sort of Gen Z imperative to advocate for yourself. (One thing you certainly learn spending a lot of time on LinkedIn is that employers are frequently flabbergasted by Gen Z’s willingness to, uh, say no to unreasonable demands — and, even more revolutionary, to make perfectly reasonable demands that earlier generations would never have dared broach, like asking to be paid for training.)

Perhaps we can’t escape LinkedIn directly, but if each of us, in our own jobs, refuses to put up with poor treatment or misguided policies — and if each of us is open about our willingness to do so — then maybe hustling on LinkedIn will stop feeling so imperative, because we’ll be happy with the job we have. That may sound naïve or overly optimistic, but all you have to do is Google “Gen Z job demands” to see that the wheels of business are already grinding in response to this sort of thing. Management consultants and academic researchers and insurance companies are publishing endless articles about how businesses are changing to attract Gen Z talent. Forbes magazine, of all places, published an article last year titled “How to meet the needs of Gen Z workers.” Meeting workers’ needs! Imagine! Not a spectre haunting Europe, perhaps, but a step in the right direction.

I might be wrong, or hopelessly optimistic. (Though I think you’d struggle to find anyone who’d describe me as hopelessly optimistic, whether on LinkedIn or in real life.) But why not give it a try? All you have to lose is all that time you spend posting on LinkedIn — and is that really worth holding onto?