For every cautious, mundane post about seeking work from one of your connections, you’ll find viral posts from entrepreneurs and business execs sharing their everyday experiences — except these morning routines or wedding days are repackaged as insightful business lessons, laden with tech bro jargon and shared in the certainty that people not only want to hear this, they need to, for the sake of their careers. These posts are rife with a mix of braggadocious claims, virtue signalling and impenetrable business-speak that is — I’ll say it again — cringe.
Posts like these are on the extreme end and are hardly limited to LinkedIn or even to business executives of a certain age. Earnest posts about the corporate world can come from anyone, whether it’s your hilarious former colleague and drinking buddy waxing lyrical about B2B marketing, or a sarcastic friend you’ve had since school posting sincerely about the importance of self-belief in overcoming work challenges. The cringe at the heart of LinkedIn seems to be a defining factor of the platform, to the point that one person made an AI generator for LinkedIn posts, with the level of cringe determined by the user. There are even comedy Twitter accounts dedicated to documenting the most egregious IRL examples.
Which begs the question: what exactly is it about LinkedIn that can make its users behave in such a cringe way?
Every social media platform relies on users understanding that there is a distinct voice you use in that space. On LinkedIn, the version you put out there is the version of yourself that you bring to every new job and (aim to) maintain there. LinkedIn You is the work version of yourself: polite, organised, a clear communicator, only makes jokes when appropriate and can stare confidently down the barrel of a camera in a formal headshot. Instagram You, to a certain extent, can be hungover. BeReal You absolutely can. LinkedIn You most definitely cannot.
LinkedIn You is also, in all likelihood, not the version of yourself that you would choose to hang out with. She’s great and you’re proud of her but I doubt she’d be there on impromptu karaoke Tuesday. This in itself can make LinkedIn feel uncomfortable. It’s not that there is something necessarily inauthentic about having a work persona — it makes sense to behave in different ways in professional and personal spaces, whether you believe that it will make you better at your job or that clear separation can aid better work/life balance. It’s that unless you are someone who sits happily in the corporate world at all times in your life (and if you are, more power to you), there’s something vulnerable about being your work self online.
With all that said, that’s the name of the LinkedIn game. And it is not the main reason why LinkedIn can be cringe.
There are several reasons jostling for first place, from the type of people who want to be so-called LinkedInfluencers to the nature of corporate jargon. But I think the crux of the cringe (the cringe crux, if you will) is that the relationship between individuals and commodifying oneself is the inverse of most other social media platforms. Instagram, Twitter and TikTok all, at least in theory, started with a focus on individuals, whether they were finding community, creating aspirational versions of themselves or building their own voices. Commercialising those personalities came later, when advertisers recognised the value of so many people’s attention and started paying for access to built-in audiences. In contrast, monetisation was part of LinkedIn from the beginning, in the sense that its users were creating an online resumé to show how and why they deserve to be hired. The personality-driven posting came later.
What's more, the impetus to become a creator and build out your presence from a digital CV into a fully-fledged persona is coming from the platform itself. (If other social media platforms have shown us anything, it’s that blurring the line between the professional and the personal and being 'real' and 'vulnerable' is a great way to get people onside.)
In March 2021, LinkedIn introduced 'creator mode', rolling it out globally in June 2021. This is currently a free-to-turn-on mode that helps you to "engage your community and build a following" as its announcement blog reads. This means changing the 'connect' button to read 'follow', enabling you to add hashtags to indicate what topics you post about the most, enabling you to gain followers from sites outside of LinkedIn, displaying your content at the top of your profile and giving you more ways to be discovered in search and thereby gain followers.
LinkedIn also added a financial incentive. In 2021, it announced that it was investing $25 million into creators on the platform, including the launch of a Creator Accelerator Program in the US, later expanding to the UK, India and Brazil. LinkedIn told Vox that there are currently 13 million users with 'creator mode' turned on, so it seems that plenty are along for the ride.
Julien Wettstein, head of editorial, EMEA at LinkedIn, explains that this is partly due to shifts in how users are posting on the platform. "We have seen a huge shift in how people show up on LinkedIn. The pandemic was arguably the catalyst for this – with the lines increasingly blurred between home and working lives, we saw our members coming to LinkedIn to share their personal experiences and find support from their network, for example, the struggles of home-schooling or working from home. Now, we are starting to see a shift away from these personal posts to knowledge-sharing (e.g. how to pull together a business plan)."
All these changes mean that users are encouraged to treat the platform like any other social media, just with a business hat on. Subsequently, Vox reports that there has been a boom in ghostwriters being paid to help execs "avoid business jargon and sound like a person". It's arguably a wise investment for anyone hoping to avoid ending up like the CEO of Ohio-based marketing company HyperSocial, Braden Wallake, who went viral after posting a crying selfie to demonstrate the impact that authorising layoffs within his company had on him.
As shown by Wallake’s deeply memed misstep, there is another problem that emerges when you try to marry the personal with the business-first focus of LinkedIn. Navigating work hierarchies is a minefield at the best of times. When you add in the unknowable variable of social media, it gets exponentially harder.
Having personal feelings about big business decisions is perfectly legitimate and you can see how a person might conclude that being more 'real' about how hard it can be to make someone redundant would be humanising. But context is key and when you are in a position of power, publicly centring your feelings isn’t humanising. In fact, it shows a dislocation from what behaviour is appropriate on a public platform that is very clearly business-focused. It puts the emotional responses of the boss and a worker on a level playing field. (After going viral, Wallake apologised, saying his intent was not to "victimise" himself.)
The hierarchy of power on LinkedIn is already confusing, without trying to dodge those blunders. As a social media platform, it enables networking between people from the most senior to those just starting out, whose paths would otherwise not cross. In theory, this is helpful in creating a more equitable workplace but the paid-for feature (which costs from a minimum of $50 a month for jobseekers to $179.99 a month for recruiters) undermines that supposedly egalitarian nature. As a free user, you are only sometimes told who has visited your profile and can only message some people, but when you pay a monthly fee, you can message people you are not connected to on InMail and see who views your profile, arguably giving those with more disposable income an advantage in the already competitive job market.
Finding work right now is hard enough without navigating crying CEO selfies, paid-for features or the deep discomfort of speaking in your work persona online. That doesn’t stop LinkedIn from being an incredibly useful tool, especially for people entering their industry for the first time or for marginalised people trying to surmount the many barriers they face in the world of work — whether that’s navigating neurodiversity in a neurotypical workspace or celebrating women in male-dominated industries. Frankly, if being a LinkedInfluencer is helping you pay the bills during a cost-of-living crisis, why would a little bit of embarrassment stop you? It is, after all, just a place for your professional self to exist — one of the many digital avatars we increasingly rely on to get through modern life.
It’s just for everyone’s benefit to remember that bringing the personal into the professional doesn’t always read the way you want it to. The jargon doesn’t need an inspiring story to set it off. That’s how you end up scrolling past posts about how the birth of your former colleague Brian’s daughter taught him the importance of scheduling in project management.