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LinkedIn’s quietly enduring importance

The business-centric social network’s story is more interesting than you think. Not because it’s been full of melodrama—but because it hasn’t.

LinkedIn’s quietly enduring importance
[Source photo: mycola/Getty Images; Alexander Shatov/Unsplash]

There aren’t many websites I frequented back in 2003 that I still visit on anything like a regular basis. Google? Of course. News mainstays such as the sites of the New York Times and CNN, too. A few venerable tech sites, including my former employer PC World as well as its sister site Macworld and archrival PCMag. Oh, and PayPal. And some I’m forgetting at the moment—this is a fun exercise.

Then there’s LinkedIn, which went live on May 5, 2003. I learned about it later that year when we covered it in PC World, joined soon after, and have been a member ever since.

If I have LinkedIn on my mind, it’s with good reason: I spent a sizable chunk of the past three months digging into its unlikely rise and enduring importance. Our story, told by the participants themselves, is now live on FastCompany.com and also looks pretty spiffy in dead-tree form in our new March-April print issue.

To spelunk through 20 years of LinkedIn history, I joined forces with my colleagues Yaz Gagne, Jared Lindzon, Megan Morrone, and Mark Sullivan to conduct dozens of interviews with people who played a role in that story: the company’s founders, its early competitors, current executives, and notable members, such as Richard Branson and Tina Mitiguy. (Tina who? Back in 2003, she was one of the first people to find a job through LinkedIn, earning her coverage in The Wall Street Journal and other media outlets.)

We ended up with so much fascinating material that we’re publishing three bonus items based on our research:

While thinking so much about LinkedIn has led me to contemplate my own long relationship with it, I should pause here to disclose that I just barely became a user during its inaugural year. It’s possible to look up your LinkedIn sign-up date, which in my case was December 29, 2003, when I became its 83,472nd member. Not that I’m competitive about that, but when I looked up my wife’s starting date just now and saw I’d joined a few weeks before she did, I felt a flutter of triumph.

Still, I don’t mean to overstate what LinkedIn has meant to me. I’ve never gotten a job using it, for instance. I’ve even gone through periods when my usage has been pretty sporadic, though I’ve found reason to spend more time there over the past decade or so as the platform became more of a true social network than just a résumé portal. (We cover that evolution in our oral history.)

But here’s the thing about LinkedIn: The fact that most people don’t spend that much time thinking about it is a compliment. Throughout its history, it’s been low-key, consistent, and dedicated to being the best LinkedIn it can be rather than chasing after industry trends. Over the years, it’s received its share of criticism for spawning spammy connection-request emails—a minor nuisance that spawned an entertaining meme involving New Yorker cartoons—but other than that, it’s been a low-drama presence in our lives.

Have Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok been net positives for humanity? In each instance, you can make the case for or against the service in question. Even Google, the “Don’t be evil” company, long ago lost the right to assume that people would give it the benefit of the doubt. But LinkedIn hasn’t screwed up the world of work, or the world in general. Indeed, by helping more people get more access to opportunities, it’s improved both worlds.

Since being acquired by Microsoft in 2016, LinkedIn also has been the rare example of a company whose products got better and more successful after being bought. That’s because Microsoft’s philosophy has been to let LinkedIn be LinkedIn, rather than aggressively integrating it into the mothership. We discuss that in our oral history, too, but it’s received relatively little attention until now. Disastrous mergers (did I hear someone say “AOL Time Warner?”) are more fun to talk about, but both Microsoft and LinkedIn deserve credit for the fact that theirs just worked in a quietly effective way.

For journalists, telling a tale notable for its lack of existential crisis or even huge surprises is a challenge. I think we succeeded in making clear why LinkedIn is so intriguing, mostly because we let the people who were there do almost all the explaining. I hope you’ll read our stories and judge for yourself.

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Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World. More More

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