Social media applications have emerged as dominant forces in the communications industry and are penetrating the lives of millions of everyday people. But defining what is and what isn’t social media and why they are popular is an ongoing challenge. We hope to analyse one such application, LinkedIn, explain how, why and when it was created; who the primary users are and where they are from; and relate its features to “the seven functional blocks of social media” as identified by Kietzmann, Hermkens, McCarthy and Silvestre (2011). We will end with a conclusion that states whether, or not, LinkedIn is a form of social media and where it is placed in this highly competitive industry.
In December of 2003, Reid Hoffman gathered together a group of former colleagues from his days at SocialNet and Paypal (Alan Blue, Jean-Luc Valliant, Eric Ly and Konstantin Guericke) to start work on a new idea. Hoffman had thought about how the world was changing in terms of how we all go about our work life and career, and what the internet means as an implication of that. He told a conference at the Stanford GSB Encore Award in 2012 that one of the ways you come up with ideas is to look at technology trends and think how that trend is going to open up market opportunities and transformative products with the hope of disrupting industries. So, when he was coming up with the idea of LinkedIn, ”The thought was that everyone is going to need a platform of identity, their network – not just to navigate career transitions…, but also in the way they manage their whole work life – how they find the right kind of resources in order to solve professional problems.” As entrepreneurs their mantra was “minimal viable product”, so it was a case of getting it launched as quickly as possible, and then growing it from there, resulting in LinkedIn being launched on the 5th of May, 2003. At this point it was a very basic networking site, that some users struggled to see the value in. Pickup was slower than expected, and by the end of the first month in operation there were only 4,500 registered users. (A “guess how many members after the first week” competition between the founding members had them all over estimating by a long way.)
A disappointing start didn’t stop it from showing enough promise that investors started getting involved. The company basically started with Hoffman as the financier, but in November of 2003, Sequoia Capital invested $4.7 million. Lots of other investments took place over the years and the company reached profitability in 2006. In 2011 LinkedIn was publicly listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Besides being publicly held, it raises money through revenues coming from talent solutions (for recruiters), marketing solutions and premium subscription products.
LinkedIn may have started out slower than its founders were expecting, but didn’t take long for the website to start growing exponentially, and it recently passed the 238 million member milestone and is still growing at a rate of 2 new members per second. LinkedIn is used in over 200 countries and territories worldwide, and is currently available in twenty languages: English, Czech, Danish, Dutch, French, German, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Malay, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, Tagalog and Turkish.
While it started in the USA, 65% of its users live outside its home country. More than four million of those are in Australia. When you consider Australia’s population and the fact that LinkedIn is a professional rather than a social network, that is an extraordinary number of Australian users. The fastest growing demographic for LinkedIn currently, is students like us, with 30 million students and recent graduates registered.
After the initial ‘just get it out there’ attitude that saw a site that some users saw no value in, LinkedIn began adding features regularly, to the point that the 2013 version is unrecognisable from that initial launch product. In late 2003 address book uploads were introduced, followed by new features like Groups in 2004. In 2006, public profiles were launched and core features like Recommendations and People You May Know were introduced, followed by LinkedIn Answers in 2007. The first enterprise application, LinkedIn Recruiter, a tool for corporate recruiting teams to find job candidates from the LinkedIn network was launched in 2008.
In 2009 LinkedIn launched its API development platform so that outside developers can create widgets and apps to integrate with LinkedIn. An article, by Leena Rao, titled ‘An Ecosystem Is Born: LinkedIn Opens Up API’, on the website techcrunch.com, suggested that by opening up its platform for developers to create third-party applications, LinkedIn’s 50 million membership base could grow rapidly. It was an excellent prediction in hindsight; LinkedIn’s members will probably hit 250 million by the end of 2013.
In 2010, LinkedIn really hit ‘the big time’ with a Fortune Magazine front cover and feature article. At the time the membership number was about 60 million. Speaking of ‘the big time’, the company also opened up a new office in the Empire State Building in 2010. Besides launching on the NYSE, 2011 is the year Linked in unveiled its LinkedIn Today news feed. This is a personalised news feed that gives the user links to relevant business related blog posts and articles (which you can then share with your network), as well as what is going on in your network. This is also where other people see what you are up to, so when you get recommended for something, everyone in your network gets that update in their feed. 2011 was also the year of the introduction of ‘Apply with LinkedIn’, a widget that allows users to apply for jobs directly from LinkedIn.
2012 was a year of transformation for LinkedIn with a complete re-architecture of the site. The company is developing based on three concepts: simplify, grow, every day. One of the major new features of 2012 is the introduction of Influencers, which gives you the ability to follow more than 250 global thought leaders, like Barrack Obama, Gary Vaynerchuk and Tony Robbins. Richard Branson became the first LinkedIn Influencer to amass more than 1 million followers.
In April, an Ipad app was launched, and then, in September we saw the release of my favourite LinkedIn feature, Endorsements, because who doesn’t like a bit of validation from your peers?
Even with such incredible success, LinkedIn has grand plans for the future. At that Stanford GSB Encore Award, CEO, Jeff Weiner, outlined where he thinks LinkedIn is heading over the next 5 years.
“Looking forward, Linked in is in a unique position to develop the economic graph (as opposed to the social and professional graph) – not just about connecting professionals, but is a digital representation or manifestation of every economic opportunity in the world, both full time and temporary. The skills required to get those opportunities, the companies offering those opportunities, the ability to map who you know at those companies up to 2 degrees, a digital profile for every one of the 3.3 billion people in the global workforce, and the ability to overlay all of the professional knowledge shared by those individuals. And then to allow those nodes on the economic graph to connect and take the friction out of the flows of intellectual capital, working capital, human capital. And you think about the power of that and what can be done with the power of the global economy – that is what the long term vision is all about.”
Kietzmann, Hermkens, McCarthy and Silvestre (2011, pp243-248) propose “the honeycomb of social media” and “the seven functional blocks of social media”. They identify seven key functions users experience, in varying degrees, while interacting with different social media platforms: identity, conversations, sharing, presence, relationships, reputation and groups. LinkedIn includes a number of these functions, lead the industry on a few of them for a long time, but completely ignores others.
What Makes Social Media, Social Media
Identity refers to how much information users of a given social media platform are able to display about themselves. The information can include basic details like one’s name, age, gender, profession and country of origin; or more intimate details like date of birth, relationship status and current location. (Kietzmann, Hermkens, McCarthy and Silvestre (2011, pp243-244)
LinkedIn encourages users to display their real names, education and vocational history, current employment, work-related skills, general location and profession. In fact, LinkedIn was one of the original social media platforms to place a heavy emphasis on education and employment, and they still (arguably) lead the industry in this area. Another unique and defining feature of LinkedIn allows users to list up to 50 skills/expertise and rate their proficiency in them from 1-10.
While users are able to display a profile picture and share ‘updates’ about themselves (which may unintentionally reveal information about their sexuality, relationship status and other intimate details), there is not a specific area for this information on LinkedIn, further promoting professionalism and a focus on linking with potential employers and other users in the same field of expertise.
As you will see from Emanuel Cachia’s LinkedIn profile located at http://www.linkedin.com/pub/emanuel-cachia/51/18b/679, he has chosen to share a lot of information about his working history and qualifications in an attempt to attract potential clients to his editing business. His profile picture is generic, focusing on his face, and his updates reveal little of his personal life. Thus, his profile and use of LinkedIn conforms to the platform’s etiquette.
The idea of conversations covers the ability for users to contact each other with private and/or public messages, often in real-time. Users can talk about anything and everything, and often do on some social media networks (Kietzmann, Hermkens, McCarthy and Silvestre (2011, p244).
LinkedIn allows connected users to send private messages to each other and/or groups of people, just like the email system. One can contact users outside of their established LinkedIn network via a system dubbed ‘InMail’, however, there is a fee associated with this service. For AUD$24.95 per month, users can create a business account and send 3 such InMails every month, or 25 InMails per month by paying a yearly fee of AUD$875.40.
This pay wall reduces spam, bullying and harassment, and is a great, although very restrictive way to monetise the site. Given the cost of the service, it must be primarily aimed at large businesses, prospective employers and employment agencies.
Sharing is the process of receiving, sending, distributing and promoting content on social media sites that often bring users together for specific purposes and/or interests. This content can include images (Flickr), videos (YouTube), discount offers (Groupon), book recommendations (GoodReads), self-published eBooks (WattPad), music (SoundCloud), and personal experiences and observations (Kietzmann, Hermkens, McCarthy and Silvestre (2011, p245). The most popular social media icons, Facebook and Twitter, allow users to share images, videos and text in the one place, using a single, intuitive user interface.
Most established LinkedIn users share their professional and educational activities as they happen, using LinkedIn as an evolving and persistently viewable resume.
Many users also promote their other products and interests such as articles and how-to guides published on blogs and websites. LinkedIn also uses an ‘update feed’ to automatically notifies users when people they are linked to update their profile.
Photos can be attached to status updates, but videos cannot be shared directly through LinkedIn. Users must instead post the content on an external site and paste the link in the update. Status updates with links to YouTube clips, and images on some blog sites like Blogger and WordPress automatically insert a thumbnail of the content in the update.
LinkedIn also allows users to share shortened versions of their updates with their followers on Twitter via a ‘share with’ checkbox at the bottom of the message window, but does not support sharing to other social media sites. This is no doubt an attempt to differentiate the LinkedIn platform from casual sites like Facebook, Tumbler and Flickr.
The presence functional block refers to users being able to display their location, and indicate when they are and aren’t available for a conversation. Kietzmann, Hermkens, McCarthy and Silvestre (2011, pp245-246) also discuss ‘presence-based platforms’ like FourSquare, Trapster and Gowalla, which allow users to share events based on the location of the activity.
LinkedIn doesn’t allow users to post their current location (other than their home town), nor notify other users of their availability to chat.
We think the latter would be a great addition, preferably integrated with a video chat platform like Skype.
The functional block titled relationships involves users being able to relate to each other and form formal, informal, casual, transient or intimate relationships based on their interests and “converse, share objects of sociality, meet up, or simply just list each other as a friend or fan” (Kietzmann, Hermkens, McCarthy and Silvestre, 2011, p246).
While Boyd and Ellison argue users are “primarily communicating with people who are already a part of their extended social network” (2007, p2), they and many other communication experts believe some users seek and make meaningful connections with people they have never met via social media.
LinkedIn emphasises the way people are connected and displays the ‘degrees of separation’ between users, rather than emphasising how many people are in a user’s network. It’s not about how many connections you have on LinkedIn, but how close you are. A few meaningful relationships with trustworthy and credible people you know are more preferable to a lot of distant (4th or 5th degree) connections.
The relationships in LinkedIn are heavily moderated and interactions are primarily concerned with expanding professional networks and promoting activities, jobs and products.
Reputations relate to the trustworthiness of users and their content often by a voting system like YouTube’s ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’ poll for every video. The more thumbs up and less thumbs down a YouTuber and their content has, the more credible and recommended the user becomes (Kietzmann, Hermkens, McCarthy and Silvestre, 2011, p247).
Users are able to ‘endorse’ other users’ skills and leave notes of recommendation, or dissatisfaction with completed work. If a user has been endorsed in a skill by a number of other, reputable users, resulting in a fair amount of positive feedback, then one can assume the user is trustworthy and credible.
LinkedIn incorporates an extra level of protection against spammers and scammers by mandating that new accounts be ‘validated’ by established community members before the new user can access certain features like direct messaging and connection requests. These measures have increased the reliability of LinkedIn and the users who use it positively.
When Kietzmann, Hermkens, McCarthy and Silvestre refer to the groups functional block (2011, pp247-248), they are describing the way a given social media allows users to form socially identifiable groups and subgroups similar to clubs and organisations in the physical world. They say “the more ‘social’ a network becomes, the bigger the group of friends, followers and contacts.” If enough people are interested in sharing their interest in an activity, that activity will have a group represented in social media.
The group functional block also refers to social media platforms allowing users to sort other users into categories based on topics of interest or relationships. Even though anthropologist Robin Dunbar (1992) proposes that humans can manage a maximum of around 150 relationships at any given time, many social media platforms allow users to create an unlimited amount of custom-named groups, and theoretically increase the number of relationships they can humanly manage.
LinkedIn allows users to sort other profiles in their ‘profile organizer’, but this is only accessible to premium account holders. Sorting connections based on industry, profession, skills and appropriateness for a vacant position within a company would be a great feature, but many ‘basic’ users are missing out on this functionality.
LinkedIn is most definitely a social media application. It does some things well, and completely ignores others, but there is no doubt that LinkedIn has an enormous following and is leading the social media industry in many ways. While some account holders seem to use LinkedIn for social purposes, the vast majority of user profiles focus on information about their professional development, education and employment history, making LinkedIn the industry-leading social media application for professionals, job seekers, employees, employment agencies and business owners.
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