Happy birthday to LinkedIn, the biggest social network no one uses

The 10-year-old network has more users and higher profits than ever -- thanks in large part to spammy marketing tactics

Yesterday LinkedIn celebrated its 10th birthday -- and what a precocious tween it's turned out to be. Unless you were born to great wealth or live in abject poverty, you probably use LinkedIn. If you're a professional and don't have a resume on LinkedIn, you might as well not exist.

LinkedIn was one of the first companies to hire data scientists to turn its petabytes of data into products. It's one of a handful of companies that have made the freemium/premium business model work, and it's now "gushing profits," according to Wired.

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Think back to 2003, if your brain cells stretch that far. The big name in social networks then was Friendster. MySpace was just starting to be noticed by people who weren't in garage bands. Zuckerberg was a year away from stealing the idea for Facebook. Google was still mostly a search engine with a blogging platform bolted on. YouTube did not exist.

There was humble LinkedIn with its nerdy horned-rim glasses and floodwater pants, inviting us all to its boring little party in the conference room. Now some 225 million people use the network, which pulled in $325 million in revenue last quarter. LinkedIn not only survived the Facebook and Twitter onslaught, it has thrived. But it did so by sacrificing its virtue.

Creeper madness
It used to be relatively hard to make a connection on LinkedIn. You had to work at the same company as someone, get introduced by a mutual connection, or be able to cough up that person's email address. Those barriers are gone. Over the last few years LinkedIn has been flashing its ankles and cooing, "Whoo-hoo sailor, over here."

Like Facebook and Twitter, LinkedIn discovered that nudging its users to be more promiscuous with their connections was the key to rapid growth.

For example, a couple years back I connected with the lovely and charming Kristyna M., who was then media contact for an antivirus software firm in Prague. Ever since, LinkedIn has been using its People You May Know algorithm to hook me up with every Jana and Svetlana at virtually every tech company inside the former Iron Curtain.

Then there was the time I was engaging a business transaction via Gmail with a woman I had never met. (No, not that kind of transaction.) Aside from our Gmail conversation and the fact that we lived in the same state, we had nothing else in common -- no shared connections anywhere, no communications on LinkedIn. She had never looked at my LinkedIn profile, nor had I looked at hers. But there she was, right at the tippy top of my People You May Know list.

Now, if I had connected my Gmail to LinkedIn, it would explain why LinkedIn picked up on this connection. But I had not connected Gmail to LinkedIn. This woman's name and email were not in my LinkedIn contacts. LinkedIn had figured out we were connected in some other way, and when I asked the company to explain how their PYMK algorithm worked, it declined. I've since heard from a dozen readers who experienced something similar. That's just creepy.

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