The two of us, relatively new colleagues, recently reached a new-colleague milestone: We admitted to each other that we totally looked each other up on LinkedIn before we met. And then we came to the realization that we both spend … kind of a lot of time looking up people we’ve never met on LinkedIn? Like, too much time. During periods when we’ve been unhappy in our careers, we’ve gone on hourslong LinkedIn odysseys, observing what we don’t have. But it happens when we’re content too: When we read an article (or a tweet) that we like, we look the author up on LinkedIn. If we meet a new friend of a friend at drinks, we wait until we are safely on the subway and then look them up on LinkedIn. When we see a cute guy anywhere in the wilds of the internet, we triangulate further information on LinkedIn.
When it comes to comparison spirals, Instagram gets all the glory. But LinkedIn is actually the ideal place to lose your mind. If the rest of social media is where we go to see that everyone is having more fun than us, LinkedIn is where we go to see that everyone is having more success than us. (And they graduated from college in 2014??) We present our case because we suspect this phenomenon stretches beyond the two of us. And because misery loves company.
LinkedIn’s status in our lives as a source of envy is surprising, because LinkedIn is easily the fuddy-duddiest of the social networks. It’s the one that doesn’t even bother with the pretense of fun or entertainment. The one that you’re on because of a vague sense of obligation. Despite its modest place in the social media ecosystem, at some point, most of us gave in to the sleeping giant that is LinkedIn, and while no one was paying attention, the straight-laced platform became a kind of default way to control your top search result. Now, 157 million of us in America have profiles. And unlike the dreaded, and increasingly common, private Instagram account, most of the LinkedIn profiles we encounter seem to be fully public. Perfect for comparing with your own.
For a certain kind of status-grubber, résumés have long been some of the juiciest documents around. (Heather confesses to peeking in the downloads folder of any public computer she’s ever used just to see if it contains any rogue CVs to peruse.) LinkedIn is this times infinity. And while bragging on Instagram and Twitter is easily mocked, on LinkedIn, a flashy job update is unquestionably acceptable, expected even. Trotting out one’s biggest accomplishments for all the world to see is literally the point. If we accept that Instagram is shallow, LinkedIn is theoretically supposed to be a social network with more depth to it. It’s about what really matters: your career. Culture at large sends a message that it’s bad to want social media popularity and the trappings thereof, but it’s not bad to want a cool job—that’s ambition, right? And yet, for us, LinkedIn has come to feel just as toxic as the rest of the social networks. (Also, no one seems to be all that weirded out about giving up all that privacy? But it’s a lot of information! We recently discovered that at least one matchmaking company trawls for mates for its clients on LinkedIn. Be careful out there.)
What’s so insidious and alluring about LinkedIn is how objective it initially seems: a cold, hard timeline, the bullet points of a career recounted with lab report–like precision. Instagram, by contrast, is all smoke and mirrors, a place to present your life’s highlights while editing out all of the lowlights. On LinkedIn, though, there’s the expectation of accuracy, with no filters—no gauzy light, no carefully arranged shots that only look candid, no tagging your enviable circle of friends. Just a mediocrely formatted online résumé, which everyone assumes probably isn’t updated all that much, giving the whole page an “oh, this old thing?” aloofness.
And yet. This is exactly the kind of data that your brain can really work with to put you in a bad mood. You can’t blame anyone for how they present themselves on LinkedIn, because they are just filling out a résumé (unless they write a timeline update about it, in which case you can blame them). But of course, LinkedIn is just another place where people perform a highly selective version of the truth. You can see that someone was, like, a VP of Ice Cream at Disneyland for two years, but not that they got fired or that they started as an underpaid intern or that they only got the job because their dad is golf buddies with Goofy.
Here is a short list of things that have made us envious on LinkedIn (you probably have your own very individual set of trigger-signifiers): people who are younger than us but have cooler jobs than us. People who are older than us but got an amazing job when they were younger than us. People who seem to get promoted every single year. Anyone who seemed to get a real office job almost immediately out of college. Anyone who got a specific job that we applied for and didn’t get. People who did years in one career and then switched, without any kind of gap. People who have a large résumé gap but successful careers nonetheless. People who live in warmer places than we do. People who have real headshots and actually look good in them. People who work at any startup that uses a millennial-pink palette. People with jobs that would impress our relatives who never go online. People with jobs that involve nature. Anyone who has the title “Creative Director” or “Curator.” We could go on, but we’ll stop there for your sake.
It’s not even that we necessarily want these jobs. It just would be nice to have the option. Like any platform, LinkedIn shows you a cacophony of amazing lives you’re not living. And while we can blame the platforms for this feeling, for making themselves addictive, ultimately it’s human nature to compare yourself with others. The bad habits we have aren’t really a product of any one platform. Our brains are determined to grasp at data about other people and make up stories with it, and they’ll work with whatever we give them. If you’re determined to feel bad about yourself, you’ll always find a way, whether it’s through LinkedIn or Pinterest or Venmo (another low-key bad one!) or any not-yet-invented utility. Now that we’ve put a spotlight on LinkedIn spiraling, maybe it won’t feel quite so shameful. As with any bad behavior, admitting it is often the first step. But also: Please don’t add us on LinkedIn. Clearly, we don’t actually use it to network.