LinkedIn – the blurred boundaries between professional and personal

LinkedIn is my main social network – I’m on Twitter, I tried Instagram (then left after realising that I too was susceptible to the odd mindless scroll – god those guys are good) and I have a decent grasp of what else is out there, but professionally – and personally – it’s the channel I find most useful, and interesting. I post fairly frequently, including linking to recent etc articles, commenting on initiatives and posts, congratulating clients and former colleagues and even hosting a LinkedIn event or two. On the odd occasion I do post something more personal, I sometimes sense check in with my editor, Amy; is it too personal? Too cheesy, too self-gratifying? 

I can’t be the only one who wonders about newly blurred boundaries on LinkedIn between work and home life and the growing trend for honest posts that touch on both, and this shift from broadcasting success to sharing virtue and vulnerability is something a lot Linkedin users must be contemplating. 

This article from the Financial Times explores this awkward marriage of work and life on Linkedin, and if you’ve ever wondered about the appropriateness of a post – or quietly considered commenting ‘save it for Facebook, mate’ – then this is worth a read. It’s behind a paywall, so I’ve dropped some of the tastiest stuff below. 

Jonathan Frostick was not expecting his social media post to go viral while he was in hospital recovering from a heart attack — but it happened, nonetheless. Five months ago, the British financial services manager wrote a LinkedIn post from the cardiac ward.

When he felt the pain in his chest, his first thought was: “F*** I needed to meet with my manager tomorrow, this isn’t convenient.” Later, he resolved to change his working life, including no longer “spending all day on Zoom” but instead “more time with my family”.

The post took off, garnering 15,000 comments and 300,000 reactions, as it resonated with pandemic-hit remote workers grappling with the porous boundaries between private and working life. 

While some commenters questioned the wisdom of writing a personal revelation on a professional networking forum, largely the reaction was positive, Frostick notes. “It opened up a conversation with other people who had life-changing events.”

A focus on career and networking has been what differentiates LinkedIn from rival social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. Indeed, relentless self-promotion and humblebragging on the site have spurred a number of parody social media accounts including Twitter handles @CraponLinkedIn and @StateofLinkedIn, which is dedicated to “exposing the worst of . . . brownnosing”.

Over the past 18 months, however, users have increasingly veered into personal musings. Users are considering “what they want to do, are they working on the right things, how are they dealing with the pressures of work and life”. Mental health hashtags have “grown exponentially”, Dan Roth, editor in chief of LinkedIn, added. 

Recent popular posts have included a woman describing stepping down from her chief executive role to pursue her dream of becoming a mother. Three months ago, one man posted about how his partner coming out as transgender inspired him to pursue a more fulfilling but less lucrative career. And earlier this year, a young woman published a photo of herself in graduation robes alongside her father in a hospital bed before he died.

This is part of a wider uptick in activity on the platform. There was a 38 per cent increase in the number of feed updates viewed in the first half of 2021 compared with the same period in 2020, LinkedIn says. Advertising revenue reached $1bn in the last quarter — almost double the same time a year ago.

LinkedIn’s personal content also echoes a wider change in corporate culture that rejects buttoned up emotions in favour of authenticity. Company mental health campaigns, for example, have encouraged employees to come forward with their stories of depression and other conditions. Social justice movements, such as #MeToo, have also depended on professionals sharing personal experiences. 

Yet the results of such sharing are uneven. Authenticity may be attractive to recruiters when it comes to high-calibre candidates, but not for everyone else. When it comes to work, people tend to prefer stories about flaws and failures when they end in success. 

For Frostick, who has previously posted on mental health, publishing on LinkedIn has been a way of tackling his often “overlooked” relationship with work.

This was part of the reason that JR Storment published a piece about the death of his eight-year-old son, Wiley. It started off as practical: he felt he needed to explain his sudden absence to work contacts. “It occurred to me that it was going to be a conversation I was going to have over and over again.” He also wanted to raise awareness about a condition called sudden unexplained death in epilepsy, which caused his son to die in his sleep.

But the article was a reminder to those who, like Storment, had devoted long hours to work, to consider prioritising their family. “To me, it was a shocking realisation,” he says. “I know lots of other people are doing the same, missing obvious chances to spend time with the ones that matter.”

Storment received thousands of comments and messages, including some from people who read his post and then turned down promotions because of the hours it would take away from their family. There were also responses from professional contacts who disclosed that their child had also died. “I feel like of all the things I’ve done in my life, it had the most impact on the most people. It wasn’t expected,” he says. “That terrible thing [that] happened had a positive impact: some peripheral people showed up [for us], we made new connections with people who got it.”

In the end, there are no hard and fast rules on what counts as oversharing, however, and with such abundant content the temptation is to cut through the noise with personal stories. As the article says, ‘It’s so easy to put on that professional façade, but at the end of the day “we are complex people with weird experiences.”

What are your thoughts around sharing on LinkedIn? Do you have set rules or topics? Is there a line you wouldn’t cross? Let me know. 

Andy.

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If you have something on your mind, a challenge you’re wrestling with or just want an alternative point of view, I’d be very happy to lend an ear and maybe help you start to unpick the issues.