Web 2.0 offers an ever-increasing amount of ways to participate online: commenting, posting, sharing or liking are just a few of the many modes of engagement (Ragnedda & Destefanis, 2019). Although social media cannot be given full credit, their emergence marked an important shift into a more collaborative era of the Internet (Marres, 2017). Such an increased participation of users online, sparked an academic interest in “the sociality” of technologies. Even though at first glance, LinkedIn may appear as a purely professional networking platform, but it borders on belonging into the social media category along with Facebook or Instagram. Nevertheless, there exist various ways in which one can use LinkedIn and opportunities to engage on a less formal level arise. As Marres (2017) highlights, the social and the digital are ever-changing, making them more difficult to study, but also creating an opportunity to perceive either in a different light than before. Changes in society can also be represented in users’ behaviour online, meaning the use and understanding of LinkedIn and its functionalities might shift because of social trends and vice versa. As intertwined as these relations are, the lack of academic research on the sociality of LinkedIn leaves it an under-explored territory. Studying it could lead to learning more about the society itself and broadening the research in media studies. Furthermore, LinkedIn already influences people’s practices and morality – e.g. it is acceptable for a recruiter to check online profiles of candidates. Growing variety of features on LinkedIn encourage sharing information, which can lead to changes of society’s morality and, should it become less formal, can further blur the boundaries between work and leisure. Through analysing user’s practices and perception in a qualitative interview, this essay aims to discuss LinkedIn’s sociality and to what extent can it be called “a third place”, while highlighting technomoral shifts. LinkedIn is studied on how well its actual use and practices fit within the categories that depict “a third place” as explained by Oldernburg (in Marres, 2017). From the same book, three perspectives on sociality, platform-, data-, and practice-centered, are taken into consideration, to see how well they can be related to LinkedIn.
LinkedIn was founded in 2003 as a social networking website emphasising users’ professional networks (Gregersen). The growth of this social media pioneer was rather slow at first, only to reach over 500 million members in 2017, after being acquired by Microsoft (Gallant, 2019). The architecture of the website, for instance CV-like profiles, encourages users to present professional information, as they would on a standard job application. However, with features allowing users to join groups, follow diverse pages or simply interact with each other, platform’s nature might be shifting from purely professional to more social.
This essay analyses the sociality of LinkedIn and discusses to what extent can LinkedIn be referred to as “a third place”. In order to gain valuable insights, a qualitative interview with an active user, referred to as John for anonymity, was conducted. John is in his late twenties, has been working for two years and gathered more than 200 connections. He is a member of five groups and follows seventeen pages. To further elaborate on John’s profile and his opinions, qualitative interviewing method was prepared. Using a semi-structured qualitative interview allows the user to speak about their experiences, practices and motives freely, because of asking non-suggestive, open-ended questions (Edwards & Holland, 2013). As they explain, this process is based on dialogue-like interaction, where the interviewer’s role is to ask questions and learn more about the subject. Additionally, semi-structured interview gives flexibility, as questions do not need to be strictly followed, but the interviewer can shuffle, choose and add accordingly, making the conversation appear more natural, hence deepening the insights. Because of this, qualitative interviewing is not focused on statistics and generalisations, but rather on themes and categories which the interviewee mentions, that relate to the discussion of the research question. This essay aims to analyse and locate LinkedIn on the spectrum of sociality and formality through user experience. Thus, the qualitative interview and the interviewee himself complement the goal of the research. However, as the research is focused on one user, the results are subjective, nevertheless offering valuable insights regarding the experience of using the platform.
The focus of this study is on technomoral changes, “subtle, technology-inflicted shifts in society, such as changes in user practices, responsibilities, and value frameworks” (Kudina & Verbeek, 2018, p. 5). It appears that users’ changing approach to LinkedIn can mirror and influence people’s morality. Therefore, examining it through the lense of a third place, as defined further below, and analysing its sociality can point to how this platform influences people’s morality now and to anticipate shifts in the future.
Oldenburg (in Hamilton et al., 2014) describes third places as informal gathering spaces away from work or home in which people voluntarily connect through, e.g. common interests, and where communities are formed (McArthur & White, 2016). Furthermore, digital age presented a new opportunity for these places to emerge, as Meyworitz (in McArthur & White, 2016) suggested, physical location can be disconnected from a sense of place by technology; by modifying social relationships, a shift in perception of sociality occurs. These new ways influence traditional face-to-face interactions, which can further cause soft changes from a technomoral perspective. These influence many people, but are difficult to research, as they are rather intangible (Kudina & Verbeek, 2019). Social media, such as Facebook, appear to enhance sociality and serve as online third places in a more straightforward manner than Linkedin. It seems to stand on the verge, though, with many various uses, like a job searching tool, online CV, a platform to reshare articles and more, having the potential to serve as a space shared by communities bonded by hobbies.
Importantly, third places can be characterised by self-selection of members, where conversation is the main activity, the others being neutrality, leveler, inclusiveness, regulars, low profile, playfull, home away from home. (Oldenburg in McArthur & White, 2016). Conversation can be viewed as a partial goal of the others, as for instance inclusiveness or neutrality are the means to achieve conversation. It is vital to note that while conversation is the main activity, members of the community can participate according to their preferences. Those ideas may not be as viable in the virtual realm, however, considering that not everyone engages in the same way (Rebillard & Touboul, 2010). However, as Marres (2017) explains, this digital participation can be fulfilled by both actively partaking and passively spectating. Therefore, on social media, there exists a spectrum of possibilities: from simply liking posts to creating own content or even engaging in political discussions, in turn contributing to the conversation and sociality of a given platform. A broader social influence of any digital participation is implied. Firstly, it produces data, providing a powerful source of information that can be used or sold by many parties. Secondly, it helps to identify reciprocal relationships between technology and social practices. Lastly, digital participation reshapes the understanding of society, as it is translated into numbers and statistics. All these can aid in following shifts in communities and societies as a whole, however, the abundance of data, its ambiguity and technology’s ever-changing nature create difficulties in extracting meaningful knowledge about society. Thus, digital sociality can be very much connected to participation and conversation online.
Moreover, Marres (2017) aims to demonstrate what makes technology social and that it has not become so just because of ‘social media’. She gazes at the topic in its entirety from a distance, to then dive deeper into many aspects of digital sociology. There are three perspectives being discussed, which approach sociality from different angles. Firstly, platform-centric approach suggests that it is user-generated content and social networking, which focus on technical aspects of technology and make it ‘social’. As Van Dijck (in Marres, 2017, p. 68) points out “making the Web social means making the sociality technical”, thus enabling certain interactions and control. Similarly, data-centric approach also looks at the meaning of ‘the social’ from the inside of technology. All digital traces people leave behind allow for analysis of more natural data, following a bottom-up approach, hence making studying ‘the social’ easier. However, this data is also prone to bias as it follows certain technical and social rules. Nevertheless, it is used in many areas of people’s lives, which exposes it to actions aimed at gaining profit. In contrast to the above, practice-centered approaches look for answers beyond the scope of technology and rather at what is done with digital media to determine social implications. The context surrounding the use of media, although it sometimes blurs with media’s content, can give more information about a technology and its social significance than any formal feature. However, these three categories are not conclusive. As digital technologies are ever changing, it is essential to examine which kinds of interventions in social life they enable. Only then, can a more adequate picture of how they assist and are part of social life be painted.
Data and discussion
Based on the explained theories, this essay aims to analyse the sociality of LinkedIn, as to what extent the platform can be perceived a third place. This allows for an analysis of changes in individuals and society, which occur simultaneously. For the purpose of providing a thorough investigation, different angles are inspected. LinkedIn is juxtaposed with the definition of a third place and its main features. From there, further questions arise, so all of the mentioned perspectives suggested by Marres (2017) are considered in relation to LinkedIn in order to answer whether and if, then to what extent it fulfils the requirements to be considered “social”. Parts of an interview, presented below, with an active LinkedIn user serve as a source of insights, and the themes that emerge are connected with presented theories.
on social media habits
I think I am still trying to find myself on LinkedIn, because you are pushed to use it as a professional network platform, but it is turning more into something like Facebook. I think that young people, that are using LinkedIn nowadays are used to using social media in certain ways. They know some rules [...] and they are applying them to LinkedIn. So I think it's changing, the nature of LinkedIn. It's also more like a feed now, so it functions more like Facebook
With viewing LinkedIn more like Facebook, John acknowledges its shifting nature to a less formal space. It appears, LinkedIn is becoming partially treated as a medium to “hang out”, rather than just present yourself to recruiters. However, as he notes, the majority of users are still sticking to it as a professional platform for now. Yet, it is changing, for example with groups or following interesting pages. Hence, people are making more private information accessible on LinkedIn, including data not connected to their professional life. Because of this, the boundaries between what is private/leisure and the professional realm blur, changing social relations in the physical world.
Conversation as the main activity
Usually it's sharing, for your community. But also post about what you do in real life. For example, when you're at conferences and you are sharing it with your network through a post. I am always aware, though, I should post interesting things not just to me, but something also interesting to my network. I want people to react, it is sad when no one even likes what you share. [...] On Facebook people are super aggressive, shout at each other. On LinkedIn people try to behave, so maybe it offers a more productive conversation.
What John defines as worth sharing is motivated by both his personal interests, but also his community. It is vital for him, that whatever he reinforces with his name is appreciated by his network. This therefore suggests, he expects engagement from other users who are supposed to share his hobbies, or, in this case, be interested in the same articles. Thus, it seems this user creates an opportunity for conversation, which constitutes the idea of a third place, with conversation as the main activity. Due to being treated as a professional environment, conversations on LinkedIn appear to be less hateful than on other social media. Thanks to this, the community is more inclusive. If LinkedIn became more like e.g. Facebook, informality could potentially damage the productivity of conversations and, in an extreme scenario, cause a change in typical work relations.
on the purpose of having a network
[...] you can build up, like, an information network, so people that are similar to you will share or comment on something and I will see it. [...] LinkedIn gives you an opportunity to engage more with interesting content. I think the groups are stronger than on Facebook, because people share their interests. [but] I think people are acting similar on LinkedIn like they did in the early years of Facebook. [T]hey are posting a lot.
Furthermore, John notes that the networks built on LinkedIn have a strong ability to connect people with similar interests. He uses his community to reach more engaging content, which then contributes to the conversation on the platform. As the shared interests are not necessarily related to business, it creates a less formal space to discuss and share hobbies. Such participation also supports the idea of sociality as something which comes from the user-generated content on LinkedIn (Marres, 2017).
on the content of his social media profile
[LinkedIn] want[s] you to share more about yourself and to describe yourself. [...] my LinkedIn profile is more up to date and could also provide more information to marketers (laughs)
on "browsing" LinkedIn
[...] I scroll through it because I am interested in discussions and papers on technology. I would always find it on LinkedIn and repost it. I would really like to share and post more, because I think it is a very powerful tool. To inform people about important and interesting stuff and hear their opinion. But it is very permanent, so I am very picky with what I share.
John recognises both the possibilities and dangers that online participation carries. Sharing interests with his community gives a chance for conversation, but it also equips many parties with sensitive information and data about others. Algorithms used by LinkedIn which suggest connections or jobs are based on information users share with the platform. Hence, by giving access to information, a user can benefit from the platform more, as the content is personalised. This in turn contributes to creating communities and conversations on LinkedIn, which supports the idea of LinkedIn being a third place by demonstrating its sociality based on Marres’ (2017) data-centric approach. On the other hand, sharing data makes users more prone to marketing or even invigilation. Providing employment information fills the knowledge gap online – for example, combined data from social media and location services helps to create a profile of a user. Furthermore, because of the pressure to have an online presence, users are further encouraged to share their information, endangering their data for malicious use. The more LinkedIn becomes a “traditional” social media in terms of its formality, such as Facebook, the more it wants to know about a user, thus gathering, analysing and even selling the data. With LinkedIn ever more involved in data collection and processing, an incentive for adequate legal measures to protect the users’ privacy emerge. Furthermore, because of society’s pressure to have an online presence, users are further encouraged to share their information, endangering their data for malicious use. The more LinkedIn becomes a typical social media in terms of its formality, the more it “wants to know” about a user, thus, gathering, analysing and even selling the data.
on the future of LinkedIn
I think when our generation is 50 or 60, LinkedIn will be more informal. I think private and professional are blending together. You are not just an employee at work, but you are also “the guy who loves coffee” or “the girl that likes skiing”. By presenting yourself like this online, people encourage more informality in real life. And you cannot separate it.
Practice-centered approach focuses on the context, as it can give more information about shifting social practices (Marres, 2017). LinkedIn was created as a professional platform, however, with adding features focusing less on purely work-related issues, but rather on presenting oneself and interacting with the community in many various ways, its social context is changing. Because it is a recent phenomenon, one can only speculate what it could bring. It seems that boundaries between professional and less formal self are blurring and online platforms, LinkedIn being one of the biggest, contribute to this significantly. It is now acceptable to not only “stalk” potential candidates on LinkedIn, but also access their other, more private profiles on Facebook or Instagram. This triggers an important techno-moral question of whether this business-inclined social network encourages invigilation of employees and candidates and of security of users’ data.
The purpose of LinkedIn might differ, but the means of achieving it seems to be similar to those of other social media platforms. LinkedIn’s sociality comes from all three perspectives by Marres’, which validates they should be considered in conjunction. A general perception of LinkedIn is too professional to be called informal, perhaps with growing popularity of groups it will change. However, it appears some users do begin to treat it differently by engaging on a more personal and less staged level. Nevertheless, it seems conversation is a very important aspect of LinkedIn. After all, such sites would not function without a community that is willing to engage.
The need for further research on the topic of sociality of technology is necessary, because of the prominence of constant change that accompanies the social and the digital, contributing to the difficulty of studying these relations. Moreover, such transformative nature of the matter makes it difficult to categorically answer what it is that makes technologies social and specify what their definite roles in ‘the social’ could be. Further studies should continue to examine the impact of technology on interactions within both the virtual and the material realms. In conclusion, digital technology and ‘the social’ intertwine and influence each other in many elaborate ways.
With social media platforms, LinkedIn included, one of the most basic and important issues emerges: an increasing social expectation that everyone should have an online presence. This pressure can even mean being disadvantaged on the job market by not having a profile on LinkedIn, as a person is then not available to active sourcing; a traditional CV no longer suffices. Because of this expectation, online presence is becoming a norm, causing further issues related to people sharing their information online, from commercialisation of personal data to privacy breaches.
Changes occurring on LinkedIn are definitely influencing the society and its morality. Because of being social, as was demonstrated with Marres’ (2017) three perspectives, LinkedIn has the power to influence and be influenced by the communities. From causing hard techno-moral issues, such as sharing of private data, to inducing more ambiguous changes, LinkedIn should be further researched to bring to the surface further implications on the relationship between society and technology.
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