If there’s one social media network where you’d expect people to be on their best behavior, it’s LinkedIn. Every message you send on the service and every comment you write carries with it the virtual equivalent of a business card: a link to your name, your title, and your company. If online anonymity breeds bad behavior, then LinkedIn must be an oasis of decency, right?
The case of British barrister Charlotte Proudman, 27—who made headlines earlier this week by posting an uncomfortable LinkedIn exchange with solicitor and married father of two Alex Carter-Silk, 57—has reopened discussions of misbehavior on the professional networking service.
In Carter-Silk’s original message to Proudman, which she tweeted on Monday, he told her that she had “a stunning picture.”
“You definitely win the prize for best LinkedIn picture I have ever seen,” he gushed, even though he also noted in advance that he was “probably horrendously politically incorrect” in saying so.
Regardless of how you feel about Proudman’s subsequent public shaming of Carter-Silk, it’s obvious that she is not alone in her experience. The misuse of LinkedIn is a phenomenon that extends beyond Proudman’s tweet and the debate around her character that has raged in British tabloids throughout the week.
For instance, Proudman’s tweet about Carter-Silk prompted several women to reply to her with screenshots of their own creepy messages. In the interest of preserving their privacy—and that of the men they named—their information won’t be repeated here, but the messages they received speak for themselves.
One woman received a message that began, “You have [a] nice smile. I must confess you sure do have a very nice and interesting page on here,” followed by a request for her e-mail address.
Another woman shared a message from a man who wrote, “I am [a] widow, I find you very attractive, I still confess that your smile is really inviting and are you single or married?”
“I could not bear the beauty you wore on your face so I decided to connect with you just to know you better,” read another unwanted message.
Many women did not share screenshots of their messages but merely attested to the frequency with which they receive them. A LinkedIn customer service Twitter account monitored the replies, asking impacted users to get in touch. A nerve had been clearly been struck.
For women, behavior like Carter-Silk’s seems to be an almost unavoidable part of being on LinkedIn. Over the past few years, outlets as diverse as Buzzfeed, Forbes, Jezebel, Adweek, and Business Insider have all reported on unprofessional compliments, unwanted advances, stalking, and harassment on the professional networking service. Since 2013, too, social media strategist Ashley Olson has been posting messages submitted by women to her website Social Creeps, where she dutifully censors identifying information about the men.
One Social Creeps message—delivered to Olson herself—reads: “You mesmerize me with your eyes. I know this is a business networking tool, but would you like to get a drink with me some time? I have a really cool job title and LOTS of professional endorsements.”
Other “creep” aggregation sites—which won’t be linked here—explicitly name and shame the offending users, as Proudman did.
Making matters worse, it wasn’t until last February that LinkedIn added a block function to allow users to hide their profiles from others.
The fact that harassment occurs on LinkedIn is not necessarily a shock in and of itself. A 2014 Pew survey found that young women ages 18 to 24 experience online stalking and sexual harassment at “disproportionately high levels.” Add to that the fact that one in four women have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace and the picture becomes clear: Professional settings do not necessarily deter sexist behavior that is much easier to carry out on the Internet anyway.
What is truly remarkable, however, is the persistence of LinkedIn creeping in a world where Carter-Silk’s unanticipated week in the tabloids is one click away from anyone.
If the dust-up between the two British lawyers teaches us nothing else, it’s that it’s time to retire the lay theory that anonymity is the primary engine of online misconduct. When people continue to send objectifying, abusive, or unwelcome messages with their full names and place of employ attached to them—with full knowledge of the Internet’s love for sexual indiscretions, no less—then what else can be done to make people feel accountable for their speech?
The disappointing answer: Perhaps nothing. Consider, for example, Rachel Gillett’s experience fielding nasty comments on LinkedIn, which she relayed for Business Insider last month. In 2014, Gillett penned a brief blog post in which she vented about being called “a fat bitch” on her morning commute. It has since received nearly 2,000 comments.
“Negative comments,” as Gillett wrote, “ranged from ‘I’m thin and paid for the right to not have to sit next to a fat person’ to ‘lose some weight’ to comments debating my actual fatness and beauty.”
These comments would be par for the course on YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter. But on LinkedIn?
As Gillett emphasized: “Bear in mind that you can see the name, occupation, and company of each commenter.”
That astonishing circumstance directly contradicts the prevailing wisdom in tech circles in the early 2010s, which held that ending online anonymity would curtail bad behavior. Both Google+ and Facebook have implemented real-name policies, with the former ending theirs in 2014 while the latter still requires some users to display identification to keep their profiles. Both have defended their policies as ways to make the Internet a more pleasant place to live.
In 2011, NPR reporter Andy Carvin asked then-Google CEO Eric Schmidt about the real-name policy and was told, Carvin later paraphrased, “Some people are just evil and we should be able to ID them and rank them downward.”
And as recently as June, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg argued in a Q&A that evildoers themselves would be less likely to act on their dastardly impulses if they can hide behind a veil of anonymity: “We know that people are much less likely to try to act abusively towards other members of our community when they’re using their real names.”
Less likely, perhaps. But if women’s experiences on LinkedIn are any proof, it’s not enough. There is also a noticeable lack of citation next to Zuckerberg’s claim. As Nadia Kayyali of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) said in a statement following the Q&A, “Despite Zuckerberg’s statement, Facebook hasn’t provided any hard data or evidence that its policy protects anyone.”
As Facebook and Google+ tinkered with their policies over the last several years, LinkedIn was home to people who used their real names to engage in exactly the sort of behaviors that its big brothers were trying to engineer away.
The misuse of LinkedIn is evidence that underneath the hubbub, the tabloids, and the Twitter debates, the problems with a situation like Proudman’s are all too human: Carter-Silk saw a “stunning” photo, he admitted that it wasn’t appropriate to comment on it, and he did it anyway—a single impulse that has now become something of an international scandal.
No matter how much identifying information accrues to our online personas, some LinkedIn users will still value the right to comment on a woman’s appearance over their reputations and, potentially, their careers. Whatever happens to these two lawyers, that’s sobering news for anyone who networks online—and for anyone who simply wants to see the Internet become a kinder place.