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What Kills LinkedIn?

LinkedIn recently revoked API access for most people. What does that mean? Other apps can no longer communicate digitally with LinkedIn in order to access its features and interrogate its data. You can no longer choose to share your data that you have stored in LinkedIn’s network with other apps in an automated fashion.

For me, this is a pain in the arse.

We had a nice integration between LinkedIn and our CRM system, Capsule, using Zapier. Every time I made a new connection on LinkedIn their details were added to our database and I was set a bunch of tasks to follow-up with them to see if they might be an interesting lead or partner. When LinkedIn turned off its API access, this slick automation died and we had to rig a rather uglier replacement.

Annoying, but there’s more than personal frustration here.

To me this is an example of a company being a poor net citizen (‘netizen’), and making choices that are likely to hurt rather than help it in the long term. The history of the web shows that companies who try to lock users into a closed platform tend not to fare so well.

First, it’s important to understand why LinkedIn decided to shut down access. From its statement from February this year: “…we’ve taken steps to refocus the Developer Program from primarily open APIs to partnership integrations that we believe provide the most value to our members, developers and business.”

The key words here are ‘our’ and ‘business’.

As Linkedin puts it in the same statement, “While many [applications] delivered value back to … LinkedIn, not all have.”

LinkedIn’s leadership clearly believes that applications like Zapier don’t add value to its business — even detract from it. I don’t think they like the idea of people programatically accessing the data in other applications that don’t necessarily remind the user of the value that they’re getting from LinkedIn’s service. Fair enough: I’m pretty sure my scraping all of the contact’s data into my CRM system was about as bad an application as they could imagine.

But what’s the alternative?

What the statement suggests is that people will only access LinkedIn’s data and services via its own apps or those of partners that it selects.

Look at the list of partners to date and you can see that you need deep pockets to partner with LinkedIn. The range of functions available is limited. Innovation is explicitly limited. No Zapier and no apps like Lowdown, pulling together all your meeting information (the apps remain, just not using LinkedIn data).

The people making these apps and hacking together integrations like mine won’t stop. They’ll just start to look elsewhere for useful sources of professional data.

LinkedIn may seem like a big beast but I’d argue that its critical mass isn’t so great that it couldn’t be displaced — relatively quickly once the momentum shifts. And moves like this definitely shift the balance to some extent.

The question is what will people move to? Will it be a LinkedIn clone that simply has more open policies around sharing? Maybe in the short term. But long term I think LinkedIn, and all social networks, are susceptible to a very different threat.

Think about the web page. Do we all build web pages on the platform of a single provider? No. We choose our hosting provider and our platform and we build web pages that conform to an agreed set of shared standards.

Think about email. As a gmail user can you only send messages to other gmail users? No. We all conform to a shared set of standards so that we can interconnect, whoever is providing our email service.

Why should something like LinkedIn be any different? Or for that matter, Facebook?

Imagine that when you buy broadband, take out a mobile phone contract, or set up a website, you’re offered a standards-based ‘page’ that replicates the capabilities of a social network like Linkedin. But rather than all being owned and controlled centrally, with one company making profits off your data, it’s distributed. Peer to peer. You own the data. You choose who can interconnect, manually or programatically.
It’s not an idea without flaws. But if you look at the history of the web, open has almost always beaten closed. Standards of one form or another have almost always beaten proprietary.

For me, this is what kills LinkedIn in the long term. And by closing its API, LinkedIn has only brought this end a fraction closer.

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Tom Cheesewright