I clearly remember the day I looked at my screen and said, “Fuck it”.
I had been going for weeks on four hours of sleep a night. Some nights I just didn’t sleep at all. It was a mad dash to get a highly customized demo put together for a global bank, one where 85 managing directors and senior VP’s would be in attendance to decide if they would choose our platform. We had twelve working days from receiving the scenarios to the day we would present.
The presentation was a huge success and eventually a few months later we closed the largest deal for the quarter. All I could think of though after the demo was sleep, which I did for fourteen hours. When I got into the office the next day, I opened my laptop, launched Outlook, and looked down in horror.
Inbox Overflow, where productivity goes to die…
I purposefully focused only on emails from the demo and product teams supporting the customization and coding work. After reading a few of the latest emails, I did what any rational person would do in that predicament. I deleted my Inbox, cleared the email trash can, and took the day off.
Over the coming weeks, people would email me to follow up on one of the 1,647 unread emails. But for the most part, nothing terrible happened. No one yelled, projects didn’t blow up, the world kept spinning.
I learned two important lessons from that experience. One, email sucks. Two, if you let the priorities of other’s overwhelm you, chances are you may get nothing done. The founder of FiveThirtyEight shared this insightful view into our distracted world:
“The signal is the truth. The noise is what distracts us from the truth.”
— Nate Silver
We probably do not truly understand the extent by which we are distracted. That is until we remove all of the external feeds hounding us for attention. As an experiment several years back, I switched off all notifications on my phone and laptop for a week. It made me realize how tiny dopamine hits from alerts and notifications had warped my mind.
Today, I generally operate notification free. Since I write a lot, I turn off all laptop notifications. My phone tends to remain in Do Not Disturb mode most of the day. I turned off alerts and email updates for most apps like Twitter and Instagram expect for handful of critical ones needed for business purposes.
One of those critical business apps is LinkedIn. I had an account since 2005, but I never really started using it regularly until 2010 as I jumped into the NYC tech startup community. An important lesson from my earlier startup failure was recognizing that I had zero network, something that I dedicated to fixing using both LinkedIn and Twitter to build my social profile.
It worked spectacularly and opened incredible opportunities over the next decade. It allowed me to connect with savvy entrepreneurs, invest in talented founders, and find opportunities to work with and advise dozens of startups. LinkedIn in particular was a key tool in globally scaling the Enterprise Sales Forum and in successfully launching an entirely new business for Stack Overflow. Along the way, I built many great relationship and close friendships.
As I was growing my network on LinkedIn, I started to notice a significant uptick in notifications. More people were responding to my posts and articles. I was seeing a greater variety and volume of content from things my connections were creating and responding to. This led me follow and connect with other interesting people, creating a flywheel that brought more insightful content and more connections.
The value in flywheels is that they use their own rotational energy to deliver a continuous flow of energy to other systems. In other words, with a little force added, a flywheel can keep things moving smoothly. Companies sometimes refer to their business model as a flywheel, an idea introduced by Jim Collins and famously applied by Jeff Bezos to scale Amazon.
Flywheels can go bad however when they run into friction. They get worn down, they rust, or they stop fitting correctly. My LinkedIn flywheel started to hit friction as I added thousands and thousands of connections. I ran into six issues with LinkedIn:
1) Content Volume — With more connections, the LinkedIn feed feels overwhelming
2) Noisy Posters — Small percentage of connections are posting continuously
3) Feed Spam — Vast majority of posted content is of low information quality
4) Lost Updates — Missed valuable posts from people I most wanted to follow
5) Non-Engagers — Vast majority never engage or interact on the network
6) Unsolicited Connections — Over 95% of requests unknown or no note
To be fair, I brought some of this upon myself. When I was scaling the Enterprise Sales Forum, LinkedIn was an easy way to reach salespeople since most B2B salespeople were regularly on the platform. To ensure they would see the events, I connected with most of them across dozens of cities globally. Of my 17,000 connections, people in a sales related capacity make up 60% of my network.
If you just viewed LinkedIn as a game to get the most connections, none of this would matter much. If you view LinkedIn as an important business tool however, quality becomes a concern. This is especially true when elevating the usefulness of a social platform for content creation and publishing as well as a means to building and foster valuable long-term relationships.
Time to dump LinkedIn where it deserves to go
From this perspective, LinkedIn became nearly unusable. Notifications would draw me in, only to show more spam and random connection requests. My feed became overtaken by low value viral content like people dispensing trite words of wisdom while driving in their cars or people unboxing company swag on their first day of work*. Even if I dismissed this, it would reappear because other connections would interact or share the post. I was drowning in a sea of noise with no signal in sight.
The LinkedIn feed algorithm makes all sorts of choices in how it presents content and members that are not visible to us. Of the 690 million LinkedIn users (half are active monthly), about 3 million share content on a weekly basis. While that may not seem that much when aggregated across the network, it is likely only a small percentage of your followers ever will see and interact with your content. This means more viral content will bubble up to the top, while the vast majority of posts will be ignored.
Publicly LinkedIn touts itself as a professional social network. Their mission even states “connect the world’s professionals to make them more productive and successful.” To that end, they have invested in ways to improve publishing, to create and distribute their own content, and to inject news and current trends into our feeds. You can send out “kudos” to colleagues and stream live video to your network.
Publishing however is not LinkedIn’s business. The LinkedIn flywheel is to draw more casual users by offering just enough value so as to entice their real customers; the recruiters and salespeople that pay up to $1500 per year for deep network access. The users are merely the honey to draw the bees.
While this is a wonderful money making machine for LinkedIn, it does not make for a very good content platform. When comparing LinkedIn to Medium for example, Medium provides content creators better publishing tools, readership analytics, and reach. My own experience bears this out with higher readership on other channels that I use for the Enterprise Sales Forum and DEVBIZOPS communities. While there is the option to post Articles, LinkedIn does nothing to boost the type of longer form, canonical content that one would imagine would be of more value. You can write up to 1,300 characters worth of content with some possibility of traction or write 1,300 words **and hear crickets.
Serious content creators therefore gravitate towards real publishing platforms. Sharing externally hosted content on LinkedIn however runs into algorithmic throttling. LinkedIn prioritizes content to keep users on LinkedIn to serve more ads and job postings, so posts with no links perform better from a reach perspective.
Because of these limitations, content on LinkedIn is painfully trite and of middling quality. Posts that perform better or go viral tend to be populist sentiments or controversial “hot takes” for the sake of controversy and likes. Occasionally there will be a snarky comment that a certain post “is more appropriate for Facebook”. The sad truth however is that LinkedIn already is Facebook.
One area I do have to appreciate about Facebook is their limit of 5,000 connections. It is still extreme, especially when Robin Dunbar suggested humans can only comfortably maintain 150 relationships, commonly referred to as Dunbar’s Number. Whether you agree with the number or not, how many people can you realistically remember or truly know in your network?
That does not dissuade LinkedIn users however from engaging in a game of connection collecting. There are users that openly brag about their large number of connections, some even hitting the 30,000 connection limit on LinkedIn. It is not hard to see how easy it is to amass such a number though. Most people have no filter on who they connect with.
There is nothing to prevent users from sending you an InMail or connection request unless you change this in the settings. About 86% of the connection requests I received are from people I do not know and do not provide a personalized note explaining why we should connect. Most of this group have also not visited my profile nor engaged with any of the content I share on LinkedIn.
That being said, those that do provide a note, only a few dozen instances showed genuine effort. The rest of the notes were generic templates of the following categories:
· We have lots of the same connections, so let’s connect!
· Your profile looks interesting, so let’s connect!
· We are in the same industry, so let’s connect!
· I really like your content, so let’s connect!
· I don’t know you, so let’s connect!
As an aside, no one that has said “I really like your content” has ever once liked, commented, or shared any of my content.
I used to be more permissive with accepting such invites. Unless the person was an obvious fake profile, a “lead gen expert”, or similarly low value user, I accepted the invites. In hindsight I regret not having a higher bar because these people that I did not know and had no real association with were often the biggest abusers of LinkedIn, filling my feed with the professional equivalent of viral cat videos.
Therefore, I can empathize with people that do not see any value in engaging on LinkedIn. The more senior you are in your career, especially in IT and technology industry, the more important it is to have a LinkedIn profile for recruiting and hiring purposes. The downside is the volume of spammy messages received, something I confirmed with many of the CTO’s and CIO’s I work with. A glimpse into their connection queue shows hundreds of unaccepted requests. Who wants to spend any time or add to one’s cognitive load sorting through that?
Eventually I got fed up with the toil and hired a virtual assistant to specifically manage my LinkedIn. She was triaging connection requests, filtering my InMails, sending out personalized connection invites, and posting content on my behalf. My contribution to the effort was to respond to comments on my posts, and if I had time, to search for posts from others I was closely following. In hindsight though, this felt ridiculous because it was inauthentic. The tool was managing me, forcing me to manage the tool.
What is LinkedIn then for users? It is the respectable, professional social network where people seek praise and engage in achievement signaling while positioning for their next job. This leaves no room for challenging discussion, deep thinking, or exploratory learning. A real community of professionals would allow for both comforting cheers and constructive conflict. You could seek support, advice, opportunity, knowledge, education, relationships, and mentoring. But that is not why LinkedIn exists nor what the company prioritizes.
So I am declaring LinkedIn bankruptcy. This means I am deleting my current account of fifteen years and starting with a fresh account. This will take some time since there is a good portion of the 17,000 plus connections that I wish to carry over. Going forward though, I am going to be significantly choosier with who I connect with so that I can build the type of network that is valuable not only for me but also for everyone that is part of that network.
To that end, it helps to have some foundational tenets to help guide me in managing my new account. I came up with the following four tenets speak to the core values I have about the value of networking:
1) Connect with others that love what I do and add value to the people in my network,
2) Share and engage with content that sparks constructive debate and learning,
3) Help and support the people in my network to the best of my ability,
4) Foster a culture of transparency, empathy, inclusivity, learning, and innovation.
Why restart on the same platform that I spent the majority of this essay bashing? Despite the many negatives, it is still the one network where the majority of my network has a presence and visits, if only infrequently. This allows me to see updates they post, track where they are working, and follow the changes in their career. Until an alternative is able to gain traction, I am stuck with LinkedIn for now.
Because of the network, LinkedIn still has some incremental value as a content distribution channel for me. LinkedIn will never be as strong of a channel as it once was. However, I am working to curate a more engaged following through monitoring my posting frequency, engaging with my strongest relationships, and having a clearer focus and theme to my content. This means less emphasis on topics around sales and a heavier focus on community building, engineering transformation, and startup scaling.
Given the change in content and conversations, this also changes how I view my network. Using my tenets will guide how I purposefully shape that network, rather than being goaded into pure numbers. The numbers mean nothing if there is no impact.
This will no doubt make some people mad since it means maintaining a much smaller network and excluding many existing connections. What is important for me at this stage however is determining whether there is still value in building and maintaining a network on LinkedIn. How I rebuild this new network according to my vision for the community I wish to build and the tenets that guide me is a subject for Part II of this post.
* Sincere congrats on your first day, that is awesome! But how about first day photos…of your new co-workers instead of inanimate objects?
** While I recognize that attention spans are shorter these days, 1,300 words is about 2 pages worth, or around 4.5 minutes, of reading. Is that really too long for people?
P.S. In the meantime, if you wish to connect with me or anyone in general on LinkedIn, here are a few tips to ensure you have a positive and fruitful online networking experience:
1) Spend some time reading the articles and content people post on their profiles and checking out their last few LinkedIn posts. If you find them valuable, then you might want like, share, or comment on a few to show your interest in their work.
2) Click the Follow button for people you wish to connect to and take several days to see what they post and how they engage with others. It’s an open network, so you are free to engage in these discussions and contribute your own unique insights or experiences.
3) If you feel you wish to be part of someone’s network, send a personalized connection request explaining what interests you about their work, why you want to connect, and how you could be a helpful connection. Do not fall into the trap of “selling”, which is very off-putting. Chances are highly likely that the personalized approach will lead to connection success.