When Internet sites invite millions of members to post, it’s a safe bet that before long, shouting and head-banging will ensue. Facebook had a ruckus a while back, regarding photos uploaded by breast-feeding activists, or “lactivists.” Reddit struggled last year to deal with posts known as creepshots. (Don’t ask.) And now it’s LinkedIn’s turn.
Yes, LinkedIn, the site for 238 million people who take their jobs seriously. Joining LinkedIn and participating in the site’s specialty groups is widely seen as a great way to network. But LinkedIn’s huge, affluent, engaged audience can also look like a spammer’s paradise. And while everyone agrees that networking is good and spamming is bad, drawing the line between the two can be devilish.
For the past few months, several clusters of LinkedIn’s busiest members have been seething about what they regard as a mistaken initiative to tag them as spammers — and to limit their ability to weigh in with new posts. For its part, LinkedIn says group moderators must be able to squelch a barrage of unwelcome posts from a tiny minority of the site’s overall membership.
Estimates are that LinkedIn’s group moderators have pressed the “hush” button for about 100,000 to 200,000 site members this year, a total somewhat less than 0.1% of the total user base. These members aren’t outright banned from LinkedIn. But once muzzled, they lose the ability to put up public posts on their own. Anything they write goes into an invisible holding basket, where it will be made public only if moderators (fellow LinkedIn members who run specialty groups) deem it to be worthwhile.
What gets LinkedIn users sent to the timeout chair? This is LinkedIn, after all; we aren’t talking about lascivious fare that crosses most people’s boundary of decency. Even Nigerian money-transfer schemes or the other nonsense of Internet spam isn’t at issue. From background conversations with LinkedIn officials and indignant users, it sounds as if most LinkedIn infractions involve overly persistent efforts to pitch work-related newsletters, websites, seminars or job listings.
It’s easy to see why LinkedIn’s friskiest members would want to hawk their services as much as possible. Rummage through a directory of LinkedIn’s 2 million groups, and you can find clusters of 180,000 Java developers, 661,000 social-media marketers, and so on. For entrepreneurial users, it can seem irresistible to spray such groups with notices proclaiming: “Do business with me!’
Each LinkedIn group leader sets his or her own rules about such bombardments, creating a vast range of practices. In some groups, self-promotion is banned entirely. In others, group leaders enjoy the right to talk up their ventures, but competitors don’t. In others, such as the Books and Writers group, anything goes: most posts by the group’s 46,000 members consist of authors’ boasts about the merits of their latest books.
Mindful of growing complaints about unwanted posts, LinkedIn in December 2012 introduced Site-Wide Automated Moderating, or SWAM. That feature makes it easy for moderators to shut down unwelcome group members and limit their ability to post in any other user group as well.
A LinkedIn spokeswoman says SWAM has been a success, reducing complaints about spam by 30% to 50% this year. But it’s a blunt tool, moving users from active group participants to immobilized with just a single push of the button. Members who have been SWAM-ed can ask group moderators to reconsider. The path to rehabilitation is described in this blog post by Stacy Zapar. Most of the time, the initial SWAM decision stands.
LinkedIn lately has been reminding moderators about SWAM’s full impact, making it clear that there are less-aggressive ways of reining in unwelcome activity, and that pressing the SWAM button will curtails users’ posting abilities across the board, not just the group at issue. Down the road, LinkedIn might want to look at ways of treating valued contributors more leniently in a potential spam situation, versus others whose group activity is limited to relentless self-promotion. Data-rich LinkedIn can probably figure out whose previous comments have earned many “likes” and constructive responses — and whose never did.
Change can’t come fast enough for people like Steve Halsey, a career coach in Chile. In a recent email exchange, Halsey said “petty tyrants” were to blame for kicking him out of a LinkedIn careers group after he submitted a post with job-hunting tips that included his email address and an invitation to do business with him. Halsey predicted that if LinkedIn can’t take a gentler approach, many of the site’s most active members will abandon the site in favor of Google+.
Meanwhile, LinkedIn members who feel they’ve been unfairly singled out for SWAM treatment now have their own group, SWAM Support. It was founded by Gary Ellenbogen, an organizational psychologist and career coach. Ellenbogen, a long-time LinkedIn premium member, says he was SWAM-ed after a mix-up involving his brief membership in a women-only career group that he had joined without fully understanding the rules.
Ellenbogen’s group is small but growing; it had 97 members as of Aug. 25, 2013.
(Article and image via Forbes)