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How I Came to Love LinkedIn, Spam and All

Illustration: SelectAll

A few weeks ago, a friend forwarded me an email thread between her co-workers. The subject: “Who Is Mallika Rao?”

I was actually trying to answer that question myself. And in the course of doing so I had signed up for LinkedIn, suddenly spamming random contacts of contacts — like said co-workers of my friend.

Joining the world’s largest professional network nearly a decade after I should have was an act of self-definition, or so I thought, a way to translate myself into terms which we’re all supposed to be fluent in. We’d missed each other, LinkedIn and I. It came of age just after I graduated college — a tool, I thought, for the corporate and buttoned-up. I resisted joining, even as I applied to my first, and second, writing jobs.

Rebellion played into this thinking, but so did ambition. Some part of me thought signing up might actually hurt my chances, by showing the seams of my efforts. Listing tiny wins and losses seemed against the writer’s task: to self-mythologize. My earliest idols mostly wrote by hand, before computers — or LinkedIn, or shilling your book on Snapchat — were things.

But one day, in the spring of 2016, I Googled a veteran writer I love. I wanted a story of hers I vaguely remembered. I found her LinkedIn account instead.

A few months earlier, I’d left a staff-writing position to freelance full-time, an exercise in humility. Isolation can bring home the disposability of us all. Editors take their time replying, tweets about how stupid you are must be dealt with in solitude, and without co-workers it can be pretty easy to imagine vanishing one day and no one really noticing.

All of which is to say: Once you truly accept your smallness, you may find your first move is to sign up, humbly, with few expectations, to LinkedIn. Suddenly your place at the communal table looks nice, with all your practical brothers and sisters smiling kindly, saying, We’ve been waiting.”

This can misfire. In less than an hour I had a text from a college friend. “Yo lady, I think your LinkedIn’s been hacked.” How did I know these co-workers of hers, she demanded, after emphasizing how hard it was to accept that this eerie account spamming everyone was actually me.

I don’t, I wrote. Had she ever emailed all of us? Maybe I’d messed up, and now everyone in my years-deep digital network was fielding my request to connect? (She said she didn’t know. It had been so long since she’d signed up.)

And so it was that several times a day I found myself tending to the new platform in my life: clarifying to strangers that I didn’t mean to imply that we are friends by asking to Link, rejecting suspect job offers, reassuring a former professor that I was fine, really, my career wasn’t dead. A man from whose website I’d bought a hat in 2015 wrote to thank me for connecting, before vowing to try to help me “in any way” he could.

Simply managing my account began to feel like the point. As I navigated my interactions, most of which hinged on the idea that my very existence on LinkedIn implied that I needed saving, I couldn’t help but admire the special brutality of the network. By spamming everyone I’d ever shared an email with, LinkedIn was calling attention to me in my moment of transition. Why wouldn’t this eager and obscure Mallika Rao — “Journalist at Various” — worry people, me included?

I can’t be alone in this task, explaining myself to people who think I need help. Last year, LinkedIn agreed to pay $13 million as a “sorry” for spamming friends of subscribers. Users track signs of the network’s grip over our lives. In a post that went viral, one blogger listed all the people LinkedIn should have known not to recommend to him: a woman with the same name as a forgotten ex-girlfriend; an aunt not even on LinkedIn who showed up with a shadow profile likely intended to dupe him into inviting her to join. (As of writing, requests for comment from LinkedIn were not returned.)

To a neurotic, sudden linkage to an infinite web of people can feel like shock therapy. LinkedIn manifests the self with a clarity no other platform is built to achieve. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are riggable: Make jokes, apply a filter, and your life seems on track. A 2016 Pew study shows low overlap between these “personality platforms” and LinkedIn, with its mania for life’s hard wins: degrees, titles. Its year-by-year log of failures and triumphs might show you to be good at what you do for a living, or maybe it’ll do the opposite: prove that you quit too early, change too often, have no one to recommend you. On LinkedIn, facts can feel like accusations.

Maybe this explains why I was reconnecting with people I’ve not heard from on any other platform — because, I’d guess, they stay away from those time-sucks. These are achievers — valedictorians, econ majors — applying equal rigor to the task of keeping up with their LinkedIn account. And why not? A person’s job history hides deeper truths, argued a recent article touting LinkedIn’s merits as a dating site. Loyalty, reliability, sociability — such traits make for LinkedIn gold.

Mine has been a good accident in a way, like showing up late to a class on limericks and having to sit through one on time-management instead. I’ve learned to come to peace with the vagueness of my life, by publicizing it so widely. My follower count now exceeds definition, at “500+.” This could mean anything. As early as day two, despite no clear action on my part, I hit 400, a milestone I remember because it coincided with a note from an unknown man with a bright smile, thanking me for “reaching out.” When I explained that I hadn’t meant to, he replied with mention of the class-action lawsuit against LinkedIn for this sort of thing. In his last line, he offered me a job.

How I Came to Love My LinkedIn Hell