On Tuesday evening, an Ohio man named Braden Wallake laid off one of the employees of his social media marketing company, and stood by while another employee was let go. Understandably, this was not a fun day for him. One way he dealt with this: by uploading a photo of himself crying to LinkedIn.
“This will be the most vulnerable thing I’ll ever share,” Wallake wrote of his reaction to the layoffs. “I just want people to see, that not every CEO out there is cold-hearted.” The post went viral—and not in a good way.
I am inclined to have a little sympathy for Wallake. His business does not seem to be going great. Vice explains that he currently takes a salary of zero dollars, down from a stipend of $250 a week. One detail of the layoffs that is easy to make fun of—his “girlfriend slash business partner” broke the news to one of the laid-off workers, Vice reports—suggests to me a man who is saddled with extremely poor work-life boundaries.
But I get why people are dunking on this! Turning someone else’s layoffs into something about you objectively makes for some very, very cringe content. To which I submit the biggest reason we should all go a tiny bit easy on this dude: Wallake’s post is only slightly more embarrassing than your typical post in the LinkedIn news feed. The truth is that the entire social-media component of the world’s premiere résumé website is really, really cringey.
If you made a LinkedIn account in 2010 and then mostly forgot about it, allow me to explain how the website functions today. After you log in, a small bar on the left displays your photo and a count of how many people have viewed your profile this week. On the right, there is a widget with “LinkedIn news,” displaying headlines like “Italy says bye-pie to Domino’s” (whatever that means). There is a small search bar at the top of the page, with which you can accomplish the theoretical true purpose of LinkedIn, looking up people’s work histories. And then there’s the hulking, scrollable monstrosity in the middle, hogging the prime real estate: the LinkedIn news feed.
There are generic job listings, employment updates, and plenty of articles and relatively inoffensive productivity hacks. But the meat of the feed, the posts that really seem to get engagement, are the business anecdotes: banal tales about something that happened at work, delivered with an equally banal lesson like “perseverance pays off,” “you can’t judge a candidate until you call their references,” “it’s bad to make employees come to the office five days a week,” or “CEOs are human beings too.” It’s Facebook, if all anyone cared about was impressing their boss. (There’s a reason LinkedIn Stories—the company’s rip-off of Facebook’s rip-off of Snapchat—was extremely, extremely short-lived.)
Sometimes, the LinkedIn news feed posts are written by CEOs, or “LinkedIn influencers”; on really bad occasions, they are written by people you know; most often, they seem to be written by middle-management strivers who are presumably posting these missives in order to hoist themselves a little higher on the corporate ladder. These just-so tales often unfurl in single-sentence paragraphs, as though the reader might have trouble ingesting a message like “it’s good to be nice to your employees” if it is not meted out at the speed of a children’s board book. As a rhetorical form, the LinkedIn post generally has the heavy-handed and practiced quality of a TED Talk, minus any excitement or potential relevance to humanity beyond the sphere of labor.
While it might be at least sort of interesting and tactically useful to hear, say, Jeff Bezos’ lightly filtered chicken scratchings on how he thinks about running Amazon and the emotional toll contained therein, the posts on LinkedIn often read like a regular-ish person pretending to be a business mogul pretending to be a regular-ish person. Others just read like a robot that has been instructed to sound like a “business guy”:
To say that these posts all have “work” in common is to make them sound too practical. What people come to LinkedIn to do is what they increasingly come to any public-facing social media account to do: to demonstrate their influence.
What makes these yarns so deeply unsettling is that they claim to offer some kind of window of insight, some humanity—”CEOs are people, too!”—when what they really are is marketing. If we’re often marketing ourselves subtly on Twitter and Instagram, we’re typically doing so with a bit more “human-ness” padded around the message of “look how sparkly my life is” or “please use my discount code for vitamins.” No one makes a LinkedIn account with the pretense of sharing business wins with close friends and family members. You make a LinkedIn account so that you can make connections, but the point of those connections is jobs, clients, and ultimately money (or self-loathing related to other people’s jobs, clients, and ultimately money). That’s why it’s so unsettling to see vulnerability show up on the feed—even if it may come from a genuine place, it is released into the world to serve a much different purpose than human connection. The CEO’s tears, presented on LinkedIn, are baldly part of the CEO’s hustle. Let this be a lesson to anyone who is tempted to publish their own anecdote to LinkedIn: The entire point of LinkedIn is that it’s not personal—it’s business.