Empty Endorsements

end-smallIt seems like every day, I get another message from LinkedIn that someone has endorsed me. I suppose my first reaction is a short burst of pride or happiness. It’s hard not to feel this when someone says you are good at something. Then the resentment takes over. Because LinkedIn endorsements are meaningless. At best, they are a craven attempt to get you coming back to the site.

That’s not to say endorsements are generally meaningless, although, for reasons I’ll discuss below, even the full text endorsements on LinkedIn have a systematic problem. But the basic issue here is: who are these people and are they qualified to judge?

I Like You as an X

As a friend noted upon receiving an endorsement in a field she has had only marginal experience with, and the endorser knew nothing about: “how can it possibly make sense for someone to endorse me for something I know nothing about? He might just as well endorse me for operating a crane :).” It is because endorsements are merely proxies for an expression of trust. There are no criteria for endorsement, nor anything beyond the binary “skilled or not.”

And it seems the interface is designed to encourage endorsements, with one recent implementation letting you do mass endorsement of a set of skills. The truth is, even with close colleagues, I have only a passing knowledge of, say, many of my LinkedIn connections’ teaching abilities. Some of them have been my students, and so they probably can say with some authority that I have the skill “teaching” but even then, are they saying I am a “good” teacher, a “great” teacher, or just that I am a “minimally acceptable” teacher.

Paging Mauss

One of the root issues of the new endorsement system is one it shared with the old endorsement process: implicit reciprocity. There was nothing built into the old system that provided this, but there was certainly the feeling that if you endorsed someone, they should endorse you back.

Perhaps this is in some general sense true of such textual endorsements in the real world, but if so, the connection is very tenuous. If I write a letter of recommendation for a student, I don’t expect her to write one back for me–not immediately at least, and probably not at all. Likewise, if I write a short endorsement for a consultant, for use in getting new clients, I have no expectation of a similar endorsement back. But on LinkedIn, it seems that one endorsement directly begets another. I suppose you could analyze this and see how many one-way endorsements there are, but I suspect there aren’t very many. I now generally don’t endorse people with textual statements, unless they specifically ask, because I don’t want it to look like I am attempting to get endorsements back. And, just to make this more complicated, if they don’t endorse me back, I wonder what this means.

This reciprocity is made even more extreme in the case of the new endorsements. When I get an email, and follow it to linked in, it prompts me: “Now it’s your turn.”


The idea of turn-taking is deeply ingrained in our social lives. Someone has done us a turn, and now we are expected to reciprocate. And just to make matters easier, I can by-pass all this messy “thinking” and just endorse-’em-all.

Brand Will Eat Itself

It’s not clear why LinkedIn would do something like this: increasing traffic at the cost of making their system laughable. Yes, I suppose they could just quietly kill off the project, but I suspect that a lot of people would be hopping mad if their hundreds of meaningless endorsements suddenly were no longer featured on their page.

Imagine an alternative LinkedIn–one that included elements of a portfolio, and asked for you to assess the work presented, or indicate the basis of your endorsement. Not just a collection of mutual back-scratchers (I’m forgoing the more obvious metaphor as this is a family blog), but a space in which people could say something real about their colleagues and their competencies. I suspect such a network would blow LinkedIn off the map.

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One Comment

  1. Posted 5/7/2013 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    I’ve kind of always wondered about this too. Especially when I see people with thousands of connections. There’s no way you can know that many people on a personal connection in real life, and they get endorsements from a lot of them.

    I think the big problem here is that if I was the owner of a business, I would not use LinkedIn endorsements to evaluate a potential employee, and on a network where it’s all about finding business connections this is a serious problem in my opinion

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