#1: Facebook's Intimacy Trap
On LinkedIn's success as a partial successor to Facebook
I’m part of the Facebook generation — between 2007 and 2014, that’s where virtually all my social networking happened. It was the town square. A smart technologist in 2010 would have called Facebook the end-all-be-all of social media: it just isn’t plausible that all these people who are growing up on Facebook, using it as their core social infrastructure, would churn. The network effect is too strong.
It turns out, network effects give and take — we did churn.1 And where did my generation churn to? Instagram is obvious, but I’d argue that LinkedIn probably sits in second place. LinkedIn is an unusual beast; it is rarely grouped in with consumer social companies like Facebook, TikTok, or Snap, but the numbers are there: $8B annual revenue, 340M monthly active users.2 It’s a big business — half of Instagram by revenue, a third by MAU count, and certainly the place outside of Instagram where millennials seem to be most active.3
This may be surprising, because LinkedIn is not cool. Social platforms canonically have an edge to them, something interactive or fun — but LinkedIn is where people post about jobs and conferences, and self-describe with word salads of corporate-speak. LinkedIn profiles are performatively professional, carefully inoffensive and somewhat removed from the real person.
There are many reasons why LinkedIn works (and continues to gain steam!) but the core one is about intimacy. And it’s the same thing that Facebook messed up.
Content on LinkedIn is not just public, but it is specifically targeted toward employers, so users are on their best behavior and think twice about everything they post. This creates a personal history that users can trust to be squeaky-clean and not something to ever worry about. In this way, LinkedIn imposes some constraints on the extent to which you can be yourself, but the constraints are extremely clear, never-changing, and well-known to all,4 which makes it an easy arena to play in.
By contrast, the rules for Facebook are murky and continuously changing. At first, Facebook seemed like a place just for your and your friends. Users would share large photo albums, and post on each others' walls, like taking part in a large groupchat today. But the standard for becoming Facebook friends was always low, since it was a small gesture to accept a request.5 And Facebook (disastrously) had a real-name policy,6 so it was easy for anyone to find you. Thus, by the early 2010s, many users had their parents and coworkers added on Facebook, which yielded a panic about prospective employers judging job applicants by their turned-out-weren’t-so-private Facebook posts.
This was the intimacy trap: Facebook presented itself as an intimate platform at first, but it did not — and could not — maintain that level of intimacy, thereby inevitably alienating its users.
The ways in which Facebook did not maintain intimacy are clear: they had enough privacy scandals, but even without them, continuously pushing people to add their acquaintances turned it from a place for your friends to a place for the people you know, which are two contexts governed by entirely different social mechanics.
But Facebook could also never maintain intimacy because who you’re comfortable sharing content with depends on when you’re sharing it. Social bonds change over time. If you’re adding a good friend today, you probably don’t want them to see your shared-with-friends photos from ten years ago. And if you’re posting personal items today, you probably don’t want acquaintances from ten years ago to see them. Facebook’s profoundly convoluted privacy settings were too little, too late in not just addressing damaged trust, but in addressing the fact that things change over time — specifically how we relate to content we produce and people in our lives.
Therefore, if you want to explain how Facebook lost market share among millennials to its dorky cousin, the answer is this: Facebook was an intimate product that became less so, and hurt its users every time it pushed those boundaries along the way. This breaking of trust — and confusion over what the user could trust to be private — led to a point where posting on Facebook was just as trustless and thorny as writing on LinkedIn.7
The only viable road is from less intimate to more intimate. Facebook started off in an untenable position; it could only become less intimate. LinkedIn did the opposite,8 and consequently, it polls as the most trusted social network, and may be the best-monetized per user.
Perhaps Facebook was too early, and too naive in its model of social context. Facebook wanted maximum legibility, and pushed that model on its users, who did not want it.9 When it came to content policy, the user really had to consciously opt out from Facebook’s share-everything-by-default approach, whereas LinkedIn presented a much easier to navigate, opt in environment where the user remained in careful control of their persona — and the professional context made them take that control seriously.
The illusion of trust or intimacy can be powerful for drawing in users, but just as powerful for repelling them once the illusion is shattered. Part of the success for platforms like LinkedIn is never creating the illusion in the first place. Constraints that may seem like product limitations can actually create meaningful value by yielding a more predictable, better understood experience, especially in complex domains like social networking over time.
Not from Facebook the company — Instagram, Messenger, and WhatsApp are popular as ever, but certainly from Facebook the product.
Figures sourced from https://99firms.com/blog/linkedin-statistics/
This is anecdotal based on my perception — I don’t know many millennials who are active on Snap anymore, or on TikTok. Certainly there are some; but by contrast I see more consistent activity across this demographic on LinkedIn.
You could say that LinkedIn is the maximally adversarial social environment in the sense that it has the clearest downside to posting something unacceptable. This means there can never be a surprise in which the environment becomes even more adversarial.
In retrospect, viewing the Facebook experience as an ever-expanding groupchat (which, like all groupchats, gets worse as it gets larger, and eventually gets abandoned) feels pretty accurate.
As opposed to a real ID policy, i.e. where you’d have to verify yourself as a real human and be able to participate pseudonymously.
Of course, using Facebook for actual professional networking was a non-starter since it still had some intimate context — you’re not going to add someone you met in a professional context to the web profile where you have pictures from your high school parties years ago.
LinkedIn presents a thoroughly sanitized, professional experience. Some personal authenticity seeps in as users test the boundaries of what’s acceptable to post, and social media brand strategies are generally moving toward (faux) authenticity, with individuals following suit.
It’s worth noting that Instagram, the heir to Facebook’s platform, has much simpler privacy controls, and no real name policy.