Professional networking platform LinkedIn (Hands, 2013) has emerged as a leading social media service, connecting over 722 million professionals worldwide (LinkedIn, 2020) to career and networking opportunities.
This essay seeks to critically analyse LinkedIn and its prodigious rise to prominence as a key agent of transformation within both the current digital ecosystem and the wider world; first probing the design, origins and development of the platform, before venturing into an examination of the ownership, business model and agenda of the platform that will foreground the final component of the essay: that is, the role of LinkedIn in facilitating sustained, global change in professional relationships, career advancement and within broader systemic social issues.
What is LinkedIn?
LinkedIn was launched as a ground-breaking new social networking service with a vision to ‘connect the world’s professionals to make them more productive and successful’ (Friedman, 2014).
In practice, LinkedIn is harnessed as tool to build professional networks, seek new employment, recruit for positions vacant within organisations, promote businesses and services (Rutledge, 2010), and share relevant news or career milestones (Hands, 2013).
A brief history of LinkedIn
According to Bort (2014), Silicon Valley magnate Reid Hoffman and a team of ex-employees from tech corporations PayPal and Socialnet.com – including Konstantin Guericke, Allen Blue, Jean-Luc Valiant, and Eric Ly – founded LinkedIn in Mountview, California, in December 2002 (Radford-Wattley, 2020), before officially launching the social networking platform of the same name on May 5, 2003 (Bort, 2014; Radford-Wattley, 2020).
The platform’s user base was borne from humble beginnings, with the 13 members of LinkedIn’s founding team inviting just 112 hand-picked professional friends and colleagues to join the network upon its launch (Lee, 2009).
Initially, co-founder Reid Hoffman concedes, the platform was widely deemed to be destined for failure; being a consumer internet venture launched in the immediate aftermath of the dot com bubble crash (Lee, 2009) that promised a controversial new future of networking (Kidder and Hindi, 2012) in which public disclosure of one’s professional network was necessary.
Growth of LinkedIn’s usership at its inception was thus markedly slow (Bort, 2014), until program creators introduced a new feature to the platform which enabled prospective users to upload their email address book to LinkedIn before joining to determine which friends and colleagues were already using the service (Bort, 2014; Kidder and Hindi, 2012).
The addition of this new feature proved to be hugely successful in encouraging membership (Bort, 2014), with the platform attaining in excess of 81,000 active users by the end of its first year of operation (Rutledge, 2013).
Following this, interest and usership of the platform proceeded to grow exponentially, prompting its founders to devise and introduce various new features to LinkedIn in order to monetise the platform – including most notably, the LinkedIn Jobs and LinkedIn Premium services, which were launched in quick succession during 2005 (Stolzoff, 2019).
The mobile app of LinkedIn was then launched in 2008 (LinkedIn, 2020), before the company went public on the stock market in January 2011 (Kidder and Hindi, 2012).
The company and service was eventually sold to Microsoft in an all-cash transaction on June 13, 2016, for $26.2 billion dollars, or $196 per share (Eadicicco, 2016). As of November 2020, LinkedIn has over 772 million active users and is accessible in over 200 countries (LinkedIn, 2020).
The complex internet ecology behind LinkedIn
Walton (2017) highlights that internet-based businesses exist as ecosystems in which owners, competitors, users, suppliers, producers, and other stakeholders existed as organisms which interacted in certain defined ways to create and consume value.
LinkedIn, certainly, is no exception to this; operating as a deeply complex ecosystem in which an array of stakeholders play a vital role in ensuring the ongoing success and utility of the platform.
As Prodromou (2016) indicates, LinkedIn is the undisputed global market leader of the albeit niche industry of online professional networking platforms. The popularity of the platform is such that it is also considered one of the top six most used social media applications in the world (Pew Research Centre, 2019).
As previously stated, LinkedIn is presently owned by American tech giant Microsoft (Eadicicco, 2016). The platform is directly managed by LinkedIn Chief Executive Officer Jeff Weiner, as overseen by current Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella (Hempel, 2017). At the time of writing, LinkedIn’s major partner is internet infrastructure provider Equinix, with which LinkedIn employs to store the colossal quantities of big data the platform collects (Fonkalsrud, 2008).
Such positioning of the platform within the digital industries therefore ensures its key competitors are not especially threatening; however, the duality of the platform as both a job posting site and professional social network ensures that its direct competitors range from European business networking imitations Viadeo and Xing (Jarry, 2017), to global online job board websites Monster Worldwide, TheLadders and Diceholdings (Hobart, 2011).
Similarly, LinkedIn’s users are equally as diverse. According to Rutledge (2010), the platform’s user base not only includes professionals from a vast array of industries and at all stages of career development, but additionally consists of students, recruiters, hiring managers, business owners, marketers, and even influencers and world leaders (Hands, 2013) who harness varying tiers of platform membership for diverse professional ends.
To increasing global concern, however, like other leading social media giants, LinkedIn is a self-regulating platform with minimal enforceable oversight by independent bodies in place to protect users’ digital rights (Napoli, 2019).
Big business: how LinkedIn makes a profit
LinkedIn has attained notoriety for its complex and incredibly successful business model (Power, 2015), which employs a range of platform features to generate multiple streams of revenue (Power, 2015) that cumulatively produce over $7 billion dollars in funds for Microsoft annually (Stolzoff, 2019).
Currently, the platform’s primary source of income – generating over fifty percent of LinkedIn’s total annual revenue (Bersin, 2012) – is generated by LinkedIn’s Talent Solutions, the premium recruiting tools offered to companies and recruiters by the platform to obtain desirable talent; including custom profile search tools, job posting capabilities, business account pages and recruitment programs (Clark Estes, 2011).
An additional, significant portion of the platform’s income is produced by LinkedIn’s innovative, highly targeted advertising service, LinkedIn Marketing Solutions (Clark Estes, 2011; Day, 2014). In fact, over twenty percent of LinkedIn’s total valuation is attributed to funds generated by its Marketing Solutions products (Team, 2016), which ranges from the option to sponsor content posted on the site, to directly messaging advertisements to users, or implementing pop-up advertisements on the site interface itself (Prodromou, 2016).
Further to this, one fifth of LinkedIn’s total revenue is derived from its membership subscription program, where users pay a set fee – which ranges between $29.99 per month for job seeking professionals using the Premium Career function, to $119.95 a month for hiring managers choosing to recruit employees through Premium Hiring (Delfino, 2019) – to access one of three tiers of exclusive membership programs that distinguish the user as a LinkedIn Premium member.
The transformative power of LinkedIn
Undoubtedly, LinkedIn has emerged as a core agent of internetworked change within the current digital landscape; serving as a ‘powerful resource’ (Hands, 2013, p. 233) which positively transforms the nature and trajectory of the careers of a diverse range of stakeholders within the professional industries (Rutledge, 2010), whilst simultaneously providing a platform upon which community voices are elevated (Friedman, 2014) to thus ultimately effect broader social change.
Particularly, Kidders and Hindi (2012) relate, the advent of LinkedIn has facilitated a total transformation in the process of job search and acquisition that professionals and aspiring professionals alike undertake in order to advance their career. Instead of relying on present employers or newspaper job adverts to seek out new positions, professionals are now truly ‘the CEO of their own career’ (Kidders and Hindi, 2012, p. 172), with affordable mobile access to a global network of contacts, hiring managers and a tailored job search and advertisement platform now at their very fingertips (Hands, 2013) courtesy of the platform – thus enabling individuals to access unparalleled career opportunities at whim (Kidders and Hindi, 2012).
Concurrently, LinkedIn has engineered a monumental shift in the tools and processes employed by the $130 billion-dollar global recruitment industry to acquire talent (Bersin, 2012). According to Halzack (2013), LinkedIn’s Recruiter tool features a vertical search engine (Havalais, 2013) which enables recruiters to conduct specialized searches for prospective job candidates, sourcing user profiles matching highly specific search criteria such as job title, qualifications held or even by location (Halzack, 2013). Such advanced capabilities possessed by LinkedIn’s candidate search engine interface have provided recruiters with a revolutionary new tool to source candidates that has created a permanent, ubiquitous shift in industry operations; as illustrated by a recent study by the Society for Human Resource Management, which indicated that over 77% of recruitment professionals now employ LinkedIn, rather than other established tools, for candidate recruitment (Halzack, 2013).
Further to this, LinkedIn has additionally served to transform the strength of relationships and opportunities for interpersonal connections between colleagues and contacts within professional industries (Bort, 2014: Kidder and Hindi, 2012). Specifically, by enabling professionals to connect through endorsing each other’s’ professional skills and knowledge (Day, 2017), message current and prospective business connections (Friedman, 2014), and post status updates relevant to their role or industry that trigger engagements with their professional peers (Hands, 2013), LinkedIn’s platform affordances aid users to create a professional network that is constantly connected and buildable like never before (Power, 2015).
No less significantly, however, the content hosting and sharing capabilities of LinkedIn, as permitted through the platform’s status update feature (Hands, 2013), has enabled users to act as prosumers (Martin, 2015), creating and communicating content to a global audience that proves instrumental in effecting broader social changes around a variety of political issues. Indeed, Messeter (2015) points out, social networking sites (SNSs) including LinkedIn have radically diminished the total control of information historically possessed by traditional media gatekeepers, and instead placed powers of information dissemination with users, providing individuals with the capabilities to post, share, view and repost content on an unlimited scale (Messeter, 2015; Martin, 2015).
Such shifts in communicative medium have positioned SNSs such as LinkedIn as tools ‘fertilizing positive, construction action’ (Messeter, 2015) upon pressing social issues – not least, the systemic and widespread discrimination against people of colour that is protested by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement (Ince, 2017). Certainly, scholars concur, LinkedIn in particular is fast emerging as a key site of activism for the BLM movement; with its status update feature permitting diverse voices to disseminate content in support of BLM to ‘millions upon millions’ (Friedman, 2014, p. 237) at the touch of a button. Definitively, the power of this tool can be most poignantly witnessed in an examination of the LinkedIn profiles of core American #BLM LinkedIn influencers and respected professionals Aaisha Joseph and Madison Butler (Martin, 2020). According to Martin (2020), Joseph and Butlers’ daily posting of content in support of the #BLM movement to their respective followings of 16,000 and 40,000 respectively on the platform has been widely deemed to have played a key role in ‘break(ing) down the status quo’ (Martin, 2020, n.p.) and ideologies which discriminate against people of colour (Martin, 2020); thus certifying the power of LinkedIn as a positive force for the movement, and by extension, revealing the potential of LinkedIn to act as an effective agent for current and future social change.
Upon close analysis of the platform, its origins and ecosystem, it becomes brilliantly clear that LinkedIn has indeed ‘forever changed’ (Rutledge, 2010, n.p.) the professional world and how it operates: from job seeking and recruitment to networking and the promotion of businesses, the platform has irrevocably disrupted globally established business norms. Most significantly, however, as a social networking medium, it has also served to propel ordinary users into the limelight and thus ultimately act as a vital tool in effecting lasting social change.
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