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LinkedIn’s makeover lacks one thing: humour

If the professional social network is now a place for personal posts, why is it not funnier?

During the pandemic, the division between home and work blurred and LinkedIn moved from strictly business to personal posts.

In the olden days, say about five years ago, LinkedIn was a fairly straightforward proposition: job hunters, contractors and entrepreneurs met recruiters, employers and investors.

Then, during the pandemic, things got peculiar as the division between home and work blurred and LinkedIn moved from strictly business to personal.

LinkedIn users no longer just boasted about professional achievements, but also shared low points and human frailties. It’s a shift Shani Orgad, professor of media and communications at the London School of Economics, calls the “vulnerability turn”.

A common theme is the “snap”, where a professional reaches breaking point. “Snap posts”, she writes, “often include images of the author in tears, reinforced by texts encouraging readers to ‘listen to themselves’ and allow themselves to be vulnerable, or photographs (often selfies) of the poster in a hospital [or the person] wearing a hospital gown and connected to medical equipment.”


One example is the viral post a financial services worker made from a cardiac ward about his epiphany after a heart attack.

These can occasionally backfire as it did for the chief executive who posted a tear-stained selfie after making redundancies, accompanied by text explaining: “This will be the most vulnerable thing I’ll ever share.” He was criticised for narcissism.

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The trend mirrors a corporate world that encourages people to talk about their difficulties and lives, including mental and physical health, sexuality or family, in a bid to be authentic – part of a broader culture of sharing personal frailties or, some might say, oversharing. Of course, this being LinkedIn, these tend to be variations of triumphing over adversity or caring too much.

The personal-professional blancmange has created a “weird chapter” in LinkedIn’s life, says comedian Michael Spicer, known for his Room Next Door videos in which he pretends to give advice to a politician – and who also riffs on the worst of LinkedIn. “Business-focused individuals use their lives to continue talking about jobs and team building. So they’d post about getting married but frame it as ‘what being a husband has taught me about starting a business’.”

LinkedIn’s personality makeover, however, lacks one essential element: humour.

That isn’t to say the platform isn’t funny. Its accidental comedy has been a rich seam, including for Twitter’s State of LinkedIn and Reddit’s Lunatics of LinkedIn, which contains a post of a woman sitting on the toilet with her laptop on her knees – because when you start a business you have to keep working with no choice but to keep “pushing through”.

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If it were possible to die from cringe, LinkedIn’s demented hustle culture and vapid thought leadership would be the terminating trigger.

The little intentional humour that exists on LinkedIn tends to parody the platform. Stand-up comedian Ken Cheng, who writes posts such as “Never fail. If you think you’re about to fail, simply don’t”, says people see it as “a welcome escape from the very corporate, self-aggrandising nature of LinkedIn”. British marketer Tom Boston is another rare exception, doing short video sketches riffing on his profession of sales, which has raised his profile and given him a promotion.

The general dearth of lightheartedness reflects the delicate nature of humour at work. Aside from the risk that a quip will land not with a laugh but a meeting with HR, there is the balance between being career advancing and sounding like The Office character David Brent (“I’m a friend first and a boss second. Probably an entertainer third.”) It is particularly tricky to be funny while hoping to catch the eye of a potential employer.

Perhaps it also speaks to the unseriousness of many white-collar jobs. If you have any wit you probably know your job has a whiff of bullshit, to wildly paraphrase the late sociologist David Graeber. But LinkedIn depends on us acting otherwise. “Those who are obsessed with money, power and status have zero sense of humour,” says Spicer baldly. “That’s why they’re unintentionally funny.”

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Humour, however, is one of the few traits to differentiate humans from computers, something that will only become more important in the future surely?

Artificial intelligence tools already do a pretty good job of generating LinkedIn content. To test it, I asked one to create a post about humour on LinkedIn.

“While laughter has its place,” it wrote. “There’s value in maintaining a polished and focused presence on this business-centric platform. Let’s keep the #professionalism high and the #jokes for another platform! #LinkedInInsights”.

In a war against the machines the best defence may be #humour. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024