Andrew Sondern

I joined LinkedIn the summer before sophomore year. I had just started my first “real” internship, a public relations gig at a radio station in Boston, and felt remarkably grown-up sitting in a cubicle in black pumps and a pencil skirt. From day one, however, there was an odd sense of transience among many of the station’s younger employees. My own arrival coincided with two longtime employees’ leaving, and our all-station meetings always ended with conversations about moving onto bigger and better things. “Networking” was a buzzword. “If you want to succeed in media,” I remember my supervisor, Jason—a short, ruddy-faced ex-DJ with a thick Boston accent—telling me, “you’ve got to start building your network now.” Jason was a passionate proponent of LinkedIn, and when I admitted to not having an account he insisted I sign up. As my only previous work experience consisted of a summer job at Claire’s, joining the “professional” network had never crossed my mind. I’d always assumed it was a resource for real professionals, college graduates with several positions already under their belts. Yet Jason was adamant that LinkedIn was for everyone—in fact, it was especially for young people like me, searching for new opportunities in a field without any clear “track.”

From the moment I created an account, my inbox flooded with requests. Aunts, uncles, classmates, coaches, even an old babysitter were eager to “connect”—i.e. to share their professional qualifications—with my own mostly blank profile. As I “expanded my network,” I began to feel increasingly uncomfortable about broadcasting my résumé to people from so many different corners of my life. Why, I began to wonder, did my cousin’s ex-boyfriend need to know my high school GPA, or what on-campus activities I was involved in? And why did I care that he was “adept at photo-editing” and had “excellent customer service skills?” I felt as though two spheres of my life were being collapsed together in a way that was both awkward and unnecessary.

Even more uncomfortable than sharing my résumé with distant relatives was sharing it with friends. As I browsed the profiles of my peers, I struggled to beat back the same feelings of competitive resentment that I’d experienced the first few weeks of freshman year, when classmates chose to introduce themselves with their SAT scores, or the all-too-frequent, “so where else did you get in?” Browsing my friends’ catalogues of academic honors and high-power internships, I felt suddenly inadequate about my own casual summer retail jobs. While I’d been selling earrings at Claire’s, it seemed my peers had been busy getting a head start in a rat race no one had warned me about. But who really cares? I thought, trying to challenge my own competitive anxieties. After all, we had three full years before really joining the workforce; certainly, I would amass enough experience to be “hirable” by then. So why, in the meantime, was I attempting to attractively package and broadcast my lack of any real expertise? And why was I browsing my friends’ equally polished attempts at self-salesmanship?

I have always hated résumés. The notion that one’s promise and competence as an employee can be determined by a sheer list of prior jobs and accomplishments seems absurd in and of itself. Not only do the single-sentence descriptions of each job convey only the most bare-bones, superficial idea of what an individual did or did not gain, but even the most detailed, in-depth record of a person’s prior experiences would communicate little about what they are capable of accomplishing. Of course, understanding a person takes time, and for employers to actually gain a complete sense of every job candidate’s worldview would be impossible. And much of what is left out of a résumé—such as questions of personality and future goals—is often addressed in an interview. Yet what has always been even more frustrating to me than a résumé’s superficiality is its shameless egoism, the way that it encourages us to inflate each and every one of our accomplishments, translating lived experiences into a sales pitch.

The way that we present ourselves on résumés—and the way we present ourselves on LinkedIn, essentially a digitalized network of résumés—is precisely the opposite of the way that we present ourselves to our friends. Left out of this cold list of accomplishments are all of the qualities that contribute to friendship—the empathy, humor, imagination, and spontaneity that spark and nurture our close relationships with one another. Moreover, friendship, I think, requires modesty. We make ourselves likeable through our willingness to let go of any sentiments of superiority or competitiveness, to talk and laugh and eat together as equals. That’s not to say that social life can’t, itself, become a sort of “résumé,” especially at Princeton where eating clubs make sharing a meal, for many students, a matter of prior qualifications. Yet while the competitive aspects of the eating club system can create barriers between past friends, even social climbing requires adhering to standards of modesty and compassion—albeit towards a select group of people while others are cut off.

In contrast to the face we show our friends, a strong résumé demands the strategic presentation of past experiences—not as full, complex human experiences, but as a list of accomplishments under the heading “experience.” The jobs and classes we might discuss with friends without any attached value judgments suddenly become “qualifications,” adding or detracting from our level of professional fitness. To share our résumés with our friends—and to read theirs—feels wrong in much the same way that sharing an academic transcript would feel wrong. On one hand, the content of a transcript is simply irrelevant to a friendship. And, on the other, the hard-to-avoid feelings of competitiveness upset the very sense of equality on which friendships are built.

There is another aspect of LinkedIn that is, I think, disturbing. A friend once described the concept of networking to me as a sort of “glorified nepotism,” and I don’t think this is all that far from the truth. Historically, the exchange of job opportunities through exclusively personal connections was frowned upon, scorned as “nepotism” and seen as entirely un-professional. Yet LinkedIn—and, in fact, the entirety of today’s fixation with “networking”—encourages us to wear our professional selves right alongside our personal, so new job opportunities can be opened for us through a late-night conversation at an eating club, or a run-in at the gym. This is not only troubling in the sense that nepotism has always been troubling—because the qualities that make one a good friend are not necessarily those that make one a good employee—but because it implies that we should be constantly ready to build “professional” connections, to embody the ego-inflated, hyper-responsible persona on our résumés, reducing our space to simply be ourselves.

The most adept “networkers” I’ve talked to claim that, for them, networking is not a superficial process. They say they form genuine, meaningful connections with people, which lead them to valuable new job opportunities. Perhaps this is true for a select few people, but I’ve always struggled to understand it. How is it possible to “sell yourself” as a professional, without smoothing over the imperfections that make us “unreliable” workers, but relatable, likeable human beings?

LinkedIn doesn’t simply use personal connections to our professional advantage. It also encourages our professional worlds to encroach on our personal ones. When we trade résumés like Facebook friend requests, we add a dimension of superficial self-advertising to an otherwise sincere promise of friendship. And however valuable these new professional “connections” might be, they’re not worth sacrificing the genuine, un-self-conscious human connections that can only come when promises of money or status are not involved.