LinkedIn is the place to go to find hard-hitting stories like “The Seven Habits of Emotionally Intelligent Accountants” or “Top Interviewers Always Ask This Question.” While Twitter lights up with bots spreading Covid disinformation and Facebook ruins your Thanksgiving, LinkedIn just plods along in a somnolent corporate monotone.
Across the roiling havoc of the Trump years, LinkedIn remained a fortress of banality. Take your politics to church, to the family holidays, even to work, but you don’t take politics to LinkedIn.
Then Russia invaded Ukraine and LinkedIn lit up.
Many have puzzled over the world’s remarkable alignment behind this scrappy post-Soviet country on Europe’s margin. Sure, they’re white, which would normally explain a lot, but so are the Russians. They’re fighting the Russians, which accounts for a lot of American support. And they’re a grimly-determined underdog with a charismatic leader who just might prevail, a Hollywood story just waiting to be written.
However, none of these factors helped Georgia in the least, where Russian troops still camp on land they stole in 2008. And none of it helped Ukraine back in 2014 when the Russians invaded Crimea. These advantages should have been just enough to inspire a few bands to wear Ukrainian-flag t-shirts at Coachella next year while their audience ignored the invasion, traveling to and from the show on the power of cheap gas.
Instead, virtually the entire democratic world has aligned to strangle Russian commerce, welcome Ukrainian refugees, and pour weapons into the war. If Ukrainians can hold out a few more weeks, western resistance to a NATO no-fly zone over the country will melt away as it did in the Balkans 30 years ago. Europe and the US are inches from abandoning the last remaining Cold War taboo, an open military challenge to Russia, over a country they were reluctant to admit to NATO. Why?
Why should Ukraine today inspire such a passionate response not seen in support of Yemen, Georgia or even Ukraine itself just seven years ago?
When looking at national power and influence in the 21st century, we should perhaps take a closer look at LinkedIn.
What is LinkedIn? It started as a social networking platform for corporate climbers. Members post a profile which is essentially their resume, and “connect” with others. As it became the de facto global employment registry, one’s LinkedIn network and activity evolved into a kind of career credit score. Engagement and connections on the platform became a key element of net worth.
Authenticity and career-based accountability have been key to LinkedIn’s influence. It’s difficult to develop a fake persona of any real value on LinkedIn, since lots of people are in a position to know whether you are, in fact, the Senior Associate Director of Corporate Synergies at Ford. Things you can get away with on Facebook because you keep it among friends, or on Twitter because you go under the handle Groyper88, will get you fired on LinkedIn. LinkedIn is where social media agitation meets real world consequences.
On Instagram every couple is happy. On Facebook every child is thriving. On LinkedIn every career is booming. LinkedIn posts are a monotonous litany of repackaged company press releases and job change announcements. The occasional political post is LinkedIn draws a passively threatening comment urging them to “keep it professional.” Leave the spicy stuff for Facebook. LinkedIn is militantly bland.
People think twice before they post controversial political content on LinkedIn. In other words, political content that thrives on LinkedIn is the de facto standard of consensus. Lose LinkedIn and you’ve lost.
Why is LinkedIn such a powerful platform? LinkedIn is the network broker of the global retainer class. Facebook has friends. LinkedIn has careers.
In the mid-20th century, Richard Horsley and Gerhard Lenski separately developed a theory of the retainer class, a tier of educated, professional elites responsible for making a society function. They were neither the wealthy nor the poor. Retainers were the bureaucrats, merchants, lawyers, generals and others, people who actually knew how things worked. Their allegiance to a regime made that regime possible.
The wealthy and the poor are defined by inheritance. Retainers are defined by education and expertise. How many oligarchs or peasants know how to run a power plant or hack a cloud-based application? You can’t maintain a prison system or an army without retainers who know how to make phone systems, databases or logistics chains work. Revolutions happen when the retainer class loses its allegiance to the wealthy elites they serve, siding instead with the poor whose cars they should be repossessing or whose sons they should be conscripting or imprisoning.
From Oliver Cromwell to Robespierre to Ho Chi Minh, revolutionaries come from the retainer class. Lose the retainer class and you’ve lost the regime, and perhaps your head. LinkedIn is where the retainer class forms its voice, carefully, slowly, even reluctantly, but with potent effect.
In this context, it should be unsurprising that Russia blocked LinkedIn in 2017, part of its campaign to clamp down on foreign influence in its media and data markets. At the time, Russia had the 15th-largest LinkedIn community in the world with 4m users. Ukraine ranked 44th, with just over a million.
Five years later, there are 4 million Ukrainians using LinkedIn and zero Russians (officially). However, this isn’t the heart of the story. The most interesting dimension of LinkedIn activity isn’t members, but density and reach. In other words, how many connections does the average user have and how far do those connections extend in terms of distance, influence and power. LinkedIn doesn’t make it easy to track this data, but you can see its shadow on the platform.
By 2022, Ukraine was a meaningful force on LinkedIn. Russia was not. At the start of the war, Google had more employees in Ukraine (200) than in Russia (100). More than 125 tech startups have employees in Ukraine. About 100 Fortune 500 companies have software development staff in Ukraine. After years of harassment and intimidation from the Putin regime, it’s estimated that major tech companies would lose as little as 1% of their annual revenues by ceasing all activity in Russia. Smaller corporate players have been ending operations there over the past decade thanks to escalating political harassment and extortion. This has serious implications in a conflict.
How do you feel about a war happening in a place you can’t find on a map, between nations whose names you can’t spell? How do you feel about a war that just killed the daughter of your product manager, someone you had a Zoom call with last week? When Saudi Arabia invaded Yemen, how many mid-level managers at global tech companies lost their network security team? When the Burmese government began slaughtering the Rohingya, how many IBM data projects ground to a halt? When the US invaded Iraq, what tech startup lost its development team? LinkedIn combines the power of instant connection with the power of the global retainer class. When a political consensus takes hold on LinkedIn it exercises gravity in corporate boardrooms, which translates quickly into political influence.
Why does LinkedIn matter? Connection is power. The connections of the global retainer class are a unique lever of power. LinkedIn itself isn’t winning the war for Ukraine, but the country’s relative heft on the platform points to a vital power few recognize. Putin’s regime has been working to sever its citizens’ connections to the wider world for decades because those connections create rival centers of influence. Isolation was necessary to make a war like this possible, but it also blunted the regime’s political reach. Finding someone in the mainstream of commerce who supports this war is a difficult effort. Putin has lost the global retainer class, which will cost him this war and bring its poison back to Moscow like a sepsis.
Only one other event has ever broken through LinkedIn’s political firewall quite so decisively – the January 6 attempted coup. Comment on the matter ended when it became clear the coup had failed, but the Ukraine invasion should be a warning to America’s autocrats. Lose LinkedIn and lose everything.
A few samples of commonly shared posts supporting Ukraine on LinkedIn.