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Is It Possible For A Social Network To Age Gracefully?

In order to grow up, social networks need to sell out.

Posted on July 29, 2013, at 4:55 p.m. ET

Last week, Nick Corcodilos, a writer and headhunter, unleashed a blog post of 1,000-plus words accusing LinkedIn of "selling out employers and job hunters." In the post he argues that LinkedIn is taking advantage of both companies and potential employees by charging corporate recruiters a hefty fee to search its vast database while also charging average users $29.95 a month for preferential treatment, ensuring they will "move to the top of the applicant list." Corcodilos compares the whole arrangement to the payola scandals of the 1950s radio industry, and does so convincingly.

The post, which attracted attention on sites like Hacker News, was factually inaccurate — Corcodilios argued that premium users could be moved to the top of all recruiter search results pages when, in actuality, premium users appear only at the top of a list of candidates that applied for a specific job — but the basic premise of the argument rings true: Allowing users to pay for placement on a job board, while not necessarily wrong, feels crooked.

For Corcodilos, and many of the commenters on his site, the real issue appears to be a much more universal one: that LinkedIn's monetization efforts feel like a breach of trust — a backward slide for a site that hopes to revolutionize professional recruitment and turn traditional job networking on its head.

"I think they're totally blowing it," Corcodilos told BuzzFeed. "LinkedIn started out as a way to meet and connect with other people, and they set the standard for identity integrity in the online job search world, but they went over to the dark side and embraced the job board model."

When asked, a LinkedIn spokesperson provided the following statment:

Purchasing a Job Seeker Premium Subscription doesn't influence in any way where a prospect appears in search a recruiter conducts on LinkedIn.

Here is what it does: when a candidate applies for a job via Jobs You Might Be Interested In (JYMBII), it moves them to the top of the list of candidates that applied for that job. So, if you (Job Seeker Premium subscriber) and I (a free LinkedIn member) apply for a job at LinkedIn via JYMBII, when the recruiter viewed the list of applicants who applied, you'd appear above me. We clearly highlight – via a yellow outline and Job Seeker Premium badge – that the candidate is atop the list because they're a Job Seeker Premium subscriber (members with the badge are twice as likely to be contacted by recruiters). By doing this, we're being transparent with recruiters and increasing the likelihood a Job Seeker Premium subscriber's profile being read.

In the end, perhaps these concerns boil down to a fundamental problem with maturing social networks, summed up succinctly by this Hacker News commenter, who argued of Corcodilos' piece: "isn't this just inevitable with social networks? Over time they become sleazier and sleazier in search of revenue?"

This is a unique problem for social media companies, which launch with lofty ambitions, altruistic mission statements, and, often, no stated revenue model, only to quickly balloon into massive corporations with initial public offerings, a spot in the New York Stock Exchange, and scores not just of new users, but of hungry shareholders.

For many of the largest social media companies, monetization has been a messy, throw-shit-at-the wall-and-see-if-it-sticks kind of process that explicitly turns users into marketable products. For a newly public company like Facebook, the struggles have been highly visible and alienating for some users, who feel that pressures of the bottom line are fundamentally altering a network they've used for nearly a decade.

There's evidence to suggest that this endlessly repeated cycle, starting with excited commitment and ending with a loss of trust, is leaving users fatigued. A recent consumer satisfaction study cites an "increase in advertising on social media" as the main reason for social media's shockingly low satisfaction score — below even airlines — with Facebook and LinkedIn at the bottom of the group.

That's not to say that the blame rests solely on these companies. Internet users are conditioned to expect revolutionary services at no cost whatsoever, a proposition that's becoming less tenable by the day, if it ever was. Deep down, we all know it's silly to expect a service with 1 billion users to live in the red, but we view it as their problem, not ours.

It would be unfair to single out Facebook and LinkedIn — virtually no major internet company is immune. Pinterest, it was recently reported, has inked deals to quietly track user browsing behavior to serve up content and ads, and under pressure from its new owners, Tumblr is succumbing to new ads and stricter content guidelines. None of this behavior is strictly malevolent, but it's a far cry from many of these networks' humble beginnings. Just three years ago, Tumblr founder David Karp once told the LA Times he hated advertising altogether. "It really turns our stomachs," he said.

By definition, social networks have to sell out in order to grow up. This invariably means becoming less palatable to a devoted core user base and, in the worst cases, can result in widespread loss of trust. It's not to say that social networks are forever doomed to betray users for bottom lines — monetization strategies will most definitely grow more sophisticated and user friendly — but in the current climate, it seems that as once-free social networking companies gradually begin identifying by their ticker symbols, users may start to sound more and more like Nick Corcodilos.

"It feels like LinkedIn has totally forgotten that its mission is helping people connect," Corcodilos said. "I'm not talking about connecting keywords in a database, but real relationships."