A gigantic change is quietly sweeping through LinkedIn. Millions of members now have a “Follow” button, a feature that promises to transform how we think about our interactions on the professional network.
ReadWrite has found, and LinkedIn has confirmed to us, that a far broader set of users can now broadcast their activity to followers who don’t need to formally connect with them to see what they’re doing.
This shift is more profound than it may first sound. It makes LinkedIn less like a work-oriented Facebook and more like a professionally oriented Twitter or Tumblr, minus the sports chatter and cat GIFs. You’ll spend less time interacting with people you already know on LinkedIn, and more with people you want to know, based on the information they’re sharing.
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“We have started to ramp the ability for members to follow other member’s public activity feeds,” says Julie Inouye, a LinkedIn spokesperson. “This is happening alongside our efforts to expand the publishing tool to all members and making it possible for members to be followed for their posts.”
While it fits neatly into LinkedIn’s plan to turn us all into self-promoting expertise-mongers, it appears that the “Follow” button is no longer closely tied to LinkedIn’s publishing platform, which has limited reach at present, and is rolling out more broadly to the entire network.
The “Follow” button is not easy to find at the moment. It appears next to some posts when users log into the home page. But the surest way to find it is to navigate to a member’s profile, click a dropdown menu next to the “Connect” button, and select “View recent activity.” That takes you to a page where there’s a prominent yellow “Follow” button.
While it’s not clear if the “Follow” button is on every member’s profile, in ReadWrite’s extensive testing, we didn’t find any profiles which lacked the button. That suggests it is now widely distributed throughout the network.
For most of LinkedIn’s history, the only way you could see another member’s activity was to connect with them—a two-way link which suggested you both knew each other professionally and were willing to vouch for each other’s skills and reputation.
That began changing in 2012, when LinkedIn introduced its Influencers program, which began with a couple hundred world-famous business leaders selected by a small in-house editorial team.
While LinkedIn emphasized the interesting articles that the likes of Richard Branson and Jack Welch were publishing, I was more intrigued by a small “Follow” button that now appeared on those celebrity profiles.
It makes far more sense to follow a business celebrity like Branson than to connect with him—not that that stopped some of LinkedIn’s more avid networkers from trying.
But it struck me at the time that the “Follow” button actually made a lot of sense for a large number of LinkedIn members with any kind of public profile in their industry—journalists, marketers, analysts, investors, and the like.
At the time, I asked why LinkedIn didn’t roll this out to everyone. LinkedIn’s long-suffering PR team politely thanked me for the feedback and said they’d pass it on to the product team.
It turns out LinkedIn had a long-term plan, which we first began to see in February. LinkedIn announced that it was expanding its self-publishing platform, starting with a very small set of 25,000 members who could now write longer posts, not just short updates. Those 25,000 members also got a “Follow” button.
While this was the real debut of the “Follow” button, it drew vanishingly little attention at the time, because it only appeared on 0.01 percent of LinkedIn’s user profiles.
So why will you want to follow people, even if they’re not publishing longer posts?
“Being able to follow someone’s actions and comments and interests that they’re making in a public forum lets you glean insights from that person,” says Inouye.
More private details like job changes, work anniversaries, and other profile updates will continue to be seen only by connections, unless you’ve explicitly made that information public in your settings.
LinkedIn’s ability to distinguish between these layers of public and semiprivate information is the result of years of work rearchitecting the service. (Among other things, this work enabled LinkedIn to introduce a long-requested block feature.)
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LinkedIn’s activity feeds for users have a URL that begins with “linkedin.com/pulse,” which suggests it is closely tied to LinkedIn Pulse, the umbrella term for LinkedIn’s content efforts which includes a newsreading service on LinkedIn’s website and mobile apps. LinkedIn’s publishing-platform posts are distributed through Pulse, as are links from outside publishers and members’ activities.
Changing the model of how members link to each other from connecting to following is a key part of the shift LinkedIn has made from networking, dealmaking, and recruiting to displaying and sharing professional knowledge—less Facebook, more Bloomberg. While connecting won’t go away, it will likely become a smaller piece of the LinkedIn experience over time.
A Data Point To Follow
For prodigious LinkedIn networkers who liked the old model of accumulating two-way connections, the new “Follow” button offers one additional bonus, though it will soon vanish.
LinkedIn has long obscured the number of connections members have once it exceeds 500, to discourage people from ostentatiously trying to boost their stats. But if you go to a user’s activity feed page, where the “Follow” button appears, you’ll see the number of followers they have, a figure which includes their current two-way connections. (By default, all of your connections also follow your public updates.)
Because very few users have had the chance to make use of the “Follow” button yet, in most cases, that number will equal their current number of connections.