Microsoft is buying LinkedIn for $26 billion, its largest deal ever. The announcement was swiftly followed by jokes, because how else could people respond, on Twitter at least, to these two lumbering corporate giants mating.
Within minutes, people were talking about the most shameful details of each company's history: LinkedIn's endless emails, and Microsoft's Clippy.
Some companies are widely known and widely loved — Facebook, Apple, Netflix, Apple, Apple. Others are huge and known mainly by their corporate clients, like IBM or Salesforce.
But in the case of Microsoft and LinkedIn, each has the distinction of being known to everyone with an office job or a PC, while simultaneously having reputations built on two great historic annoyances: LinkedIn's torrent of email notifications from randos, and Microsoft's ill-fated digital assistant.
Clippy, which always thought you were trying to write a letter, became Microsoft's awkward entree into web culture, and was killed off in a marketing campaign that included a video where Clippy "gets in a domestic squabble and drowns his sorrows in beer." People truly hated it, and by 2001, Microsoft was offering a website where you could "shoot virtual rubber bands, staples, and other office supplies at Clippy."
LinkedIn's attack-of-the-clones email assault (which its chief executive Jeff Weiner has apologized for) and Clippy's infuriating geniality are metaphors for the companies that built them — and useful lessons in how corporate technology that seeks to be human ends up in an uncanny valley between useful and relatable.
Clippy was supposed to be the human face of a program whose capabilities were far beyond what most users needed from it most of the time; LinkedIn's "Hi Matthew, I'd like to add you to my professional network on LinkedIn" is a perfect amalgamation of corporate-speak: the cheerful greeting, the automated insertion of your human name, and then a branded compound noun.
It's no coincidence LinkedIn is the way it is: Its best customers are human resources employees for companies that are doing a lot of hiring. HR translates some of the messiest and most consequential parts of life — where people work, how much they are paid, whether they get fired — into corporate-speak. LinkedIn speaks a pidgin of human and human resources; Microsoft speaks in a human tongue translated by software.
Maybe this is how it should be: So much of office life in the early 21st century consists of trying to re-create normal society in the deeply abnormal world of the company. Silicon Valley is at the forefront of turning workplaces into its employees' gyms, restaurants, bars — why shouldn't the two unavoidable interfaces of our working life join and become one?
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella sketched out a vision for integration that goes well beyond Clippy sending you spam. He said LinkedIn could become "the social fabric across all of Microsoft."
Clippy is long gone. But in its place is Cortana, Microsoft's personal assistant system, and Nadella has high hopes. Here's how he put it today, in the science fiction genre known as the merger press call:
"Just imagine, you are walking into a meeting and Cortana now wakes up and tells you about the people you are meeting for the first time, tells you all the things that you want to know before walking into meeting someone, because it has access to the professional network."
"LinkedIn and Microsoft share a mission. When we talk about Microsoft mission, we talk about empowering every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more. There is no better way to really realize that mission than to connect the world's professionals to make them more productive and successful," Nadella said.
That was rough. Here are some jokes.