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LinkedIn says user engagement nearly doubled in 2020, relative to the year prior.Eric Risberg/The Associated Press

COVID-19 is raging again, but you would barely know it scrolling through LinkedIn. Inside the social network for business professionals, everyone is constantly humbled, thrilled or honoured. Occasionally, they’re all three at the very same time.

By what, exactly? Their latest promotion. Or their newest client. Sometimes their most-recent deal. They always want you to know they were “humbled by the opportunity” and “grateful for the experience.” Often they’ll attach a glamour shot so you can see for yourself. Won an internal award for overseeing a product launch? Better post a photo holding the plaque.

The humblebrags are just the start of it. On LinkedIn there’s now everything from pregnancy announcements to weight-loss achievements, and people you barely know will write mini-essays about getting fired. They’ll also pen public love letters explaining why they absolutely, positively adore their jobs.

I’ve spent the past few months scrolling through this jungle to decipher whether it was always like this, and I just hadn’t noticed, or if something truly had changed. The very non-academic verdict: There’s been a remarkable shift, and LinkedIn has morphed into one of the wildest places on the internet.

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Much of it is thanks to the pandemic. Stuck working from home, white-collar workers have been desperate for stimulation. LinkedIn says user engagement nearly doubled in 2020, relative to the year prior, and in the fourth quarter of fiscal 2021 there was a 35-per-cent jump in public conversations – that is, posts, comments and reactions – relative to the same period in 2020.

Early in the pandemic, this was comforting. “When COVID hit and there was far less opportunity for social interaction – going out to conferences, meeting people, going to church – I was looking for a replacement,” says Richard Rémillard, a consultant and former executive director of the Canadian Venture Capital & Private Equity Association.

“I’ve got a Facebook account, too, but it’s me going mushroom hunting north of Ottawa.”

Mr. Rémillard is a LinkedIn power user who pops up in my news feed daily. He says his goal has been sensible debate about business issues. It’s a lost dream. “The celebratory aspect of Linkedin has taken over entirely.”

It’s been quite the evolution. In its early days, LinkedIn was seen as a simple way to keep in contact with people from your personal network. Barely anything happened on it. You’d get a request to connect, accept, and then it was mostly radio silence.

If you cared to search around, you could get a few brief updates on former colleagues or classmates who had started new jobs, but the updates were all made with tact. The real value in LinkedIn was for recruiters and headhunters, because it was their dream database.

Around 2014, there was a noticeable shift and the service started to look more like a social-media platform, with LinkedIn pushing a steady stream of content on its news feed to give users something to keep coming back for. Staying true to its roots, LinkedIn invited business leaders to participate by developing relationships with corporate communications teams, and CEOs started posting quarterly updates and personal stories.

Most were boring, likely because human-resources departments and lawyers love to suck the fun out of everything. CEOs also rarely seemed to write the posts themselves – that’s what communications teams are for. But LinkedIn took pride in being a place for civil discourse.

“When people start talking about politics, you see this flood of comments beneath what they are writing, saying, ‘This isn’t Facebook. Please don’t put that here,’ ” LinkedIn’s editor-in-chief Daniel Roth said on the Recode podcast five years ago.

He also noted that ordinary users tended to self-censor. “When you write or share or comment on LinkedIn, your boss sees it, your employees see it, your future business partners see it,” he added, “so people tend to be much more careful about what they say.”

A lot has changed since then, including ownership. Microsoft Corp. bought LinkedIn for US$26-billion in 2016, and there’s also been the influencer revolution, in which individuals promote brands through their social-media accounts. It’s more common now to blur personal and professional worlds.

And then there’s the pandemic. So much of the content LinkedIn users post is the stuff they used to brag or vent about in person, to a small group. Food courts used to be lovely hotbeds of gossip. But that’s been taken away, so now people post for the world to see – with their job titles and company names attached.

I know my frustration about this is child’s play relative to what hospital staff are dealing with right now. But it also feels as if LinkedIn is on the precipice of devolving into something very dark. Scroll through the news feed for long enough and it becomes pretty rage inducing, and there have already been instances of bragging causing outrages, such as when law students bragged about the summer jobs they snagged – leaving their classmates feeling like crap.

What used to be a recruiting platform is far from it today, and that vice-president you barely know, who’s acting like one of your aunties on Facebook who just can’t help but post, is probably affecting you more than you think.

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