When Social Networks Become Anti-Social by @YardenTadmor

Article main image
Aug 20, 2015
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

It’s 2015. Do you know who owns your digital identity?

When platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter reach a certain size, they start innovating in one of two ways: inclusively or exclusively. With much of our online identities being wrapped up in one or more of these sites, it means that their innovations can either aid or inhibit our digital escapades. While it’s perfectly fine as long as these platforms stay social and share the wealth, one begs the question: what happens when they flip the switch to lock the doors and short-circuit the network?

Most likely, our digital identities exist within the domain of the major platforms — Facebook (and its subsidiary, Instagram), Twitter, LinkedIn, Google, and others. More often than not, the process of creating and building an online presence within these platforms would never receive more than a passing thought. However, a recent flurry of tech news indicates that networks are increasingly taking more liberties with their users’ data, making it harder for users to extract themselves as “keeping personal data safe” actually means selling it to the highest bidder.

Even more damaging, it is those networks we entrust with what is arguably our most sensitive information — our resume, skills, experience, professional connections — that are taking more liberties than anybody else. We pay so much attention to our Facebook updates and tweets that there is little room to consider how our resume is being bought and sold behind the scenes.

To understand the data dance platforms are performing today, we must go back to the wild west days of the web, the 1990s, for the augur of AOL. In an attempt to corral users and eliminate spammers (and competitors), AOL built its own ecosystem. By 2000, it accounted for 10% of the global Internet population. Things broke down when AOL’s interface became unwieldy and expensive for users, but their temporary dominance did prove that an Internet platform did not need to limit itself.

Facebook and Twitter, the two most dominant platforms, were originally founded as the anti-AOL. They both ascribed to Tim Berners-Lee’s founding ethos of openness, the idea that allowing developers to interact with and innovate using these big platforms would make for a more verdant internet, to the ultimate benefit of users.

In 2007, Mark Zuckerberg was explicit: “Right now, social networks are closed platforms,” Zuckerberg said. “And today, we’re going to end that.” That same year, Twitter founder Biz Stone was similarly committed: “The API has been arguably the most important, or maybe even inarguably, the most important thing we’ve done with Twitter.”

Back before LinkedIn was the world’s largest professional network, it also acknowledged the value of openness. In 2009, with 50 million users in the tank and mulling an IPO, the service fully opened its API to developers in order to increase its web presence.

Things have changed. When millions of users become hundreds of millions, and the company goes public, revenue trumps all other considerations. Facebook started closely policing developers within 18 months of Zuckerberg’s announcement. Almost all of Facebook’s revenue growth is reliant on advertisements, and with its recent acquisitions (WhatsApp) and product rollouts (Facebook At Work), it’s clear that the social networking giant is taking steps toward making its platform the only tab internet users will ever need.

Twitter is behaving similarly, evidenced by its very public spat with Facebook over Instagram’s integration and, earlier this year, the way it shut down social graph access for live-streaming app Meerkat and rolled out their own recently purchased service, Periscope, instead.

“Big platforms should take leadership coming from courage and not fear,” Meerkat CEO Ben Rubin said back in May, after Twitter cut Meerkat off because they were now technically “competing” with Periscope

Critically, though, the two social heavyweights fighting for our attention do remain open in key ways. When they protect their proprietary assets like the social graph, that is their prerogative. While this limits innovation to a certain extent, this typically was a useful growth tool for apps and startups, which took advantage of a very open social graph third-party access policies and loopholes.

Where Facebook and Twitter have remained open is in terms of user-fed data. Using Facebook as the example, you can still do just about anything you want by way of identity authentication: leverage your profile information, photos, friends, groups, events and so on via both desktop and mobile. Through one-tap authentication on mobile, most apps are still allowed to interact with Facebook as long as the user gives permission. For the user, then, Facebook is open. It hopes to keep you and your data on its platform but won’t prevent you from moving your eyes and data elsewhere.

LinkedIn, on the other hand, is careening toward a world where it walls off proprietary and user-fed data, from developers and even from users themselves. Since 2009, a period in which LinkedIn has grown its user base from 50 to 364 million and increased revenue by a factor of 18, the service has progressively closed its developer program and today, allows only a handful of “partners” to interact with its API. LinkedIn says it is limiting its API to companies which benefit users, but it is giving users no agency in deciding which companies — even if you consent to have your profile imported into one of them. That means that while it might protect you from spammers, it also wants to protect you from yourself and quietly discourage you from choosing competing sites or services.

The professional network recently triggered user outrage when it removed the tool with which users could immediately download their contacts into a CSV file. But at the end of the day, those contacts were built within LinkedIn’s social graph and they certainly have a right to protect them. The bigger issue is how LinkedIn packages your individual data for profit. A majority (62%) of LinkedIn’s profit derives from Talent Solutions, which is a nice title for the way they sell access to our data — resume, skills, endorsements, connections — to recruiters. So while the service claims its commitment to security — witnessed by the minimal API allotment and blockading of user resumes — is for the benefit of the user, the argument could be made it is not. In fact, it seems that LinkedIn is making the data harder to extract because without it, the network may cease to exist altogether.

Whereas Facebook has benefited from its ballooning advertising revenues in recent years, LinkedIn’s has been spiralling for a while now. The company announced lowered projections for its Content Marketing sector in April, and said display ad revenues were down 10% year over year. That means its revenue model is increasingly reliant on that Talent Solutions category, in which it charges for recruiter, Saas, and job listing fees. That means where Facebook can remain open and allow data to move freely, LinkedIn needs to wall in user data so it remains in one place — and therefore retains its value to those who buy it.
At the end of the day, nobody is forcing you to establish an online identity with these platforms. But for all the wariness around what we put on Facebook and Twitter and who can see our social lives unfold (personally or professionally), there is a concerning lack of awareness around LinkedIn, despite its commitment to building a closed network making it perhaps the greatest threat to our identity of them all.

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.