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08.07.16 / LinkedIn ‘viral’ posts: emotion and algorithms

LinkedIn newsfeeds used to be places full of promotions, role changes and occasional news links. Now you’re as likely to see a story about an entrepreneur’s triumph against adversity, or a user post about a touching incident in their daily life which made them reconsider how we should all engage with the world. Not only that, but these posts have tens of thousands of likes.

For many people from emotionally reticent Western European countries (OK, Brits, but it can’t just be us) this emotive, personal content can feel challenging, in a culture where that degree of emotional openness, vulnerability and fluency is a-typical.

But what’s driven the 2016 explosion of pro-emo (as we’ve decided to term it, in absence of any conventionally used term) content?

Overwhelmingly this is down to algorithm changes LinkedIn made in 2015 and again in early 2016, which have driven a prioritisation of a) user-composed posts (over link shares), and emphasised high engagement content. Essentially the most likes or comments your post gets, the more likely it is to be shown to your connections. This creates a virtuous ‘winner takes all’ cycle for content.

It also reflects structural changes made over the last two years by LinkedIn to promote content discovery. Alongside LinkedIn Pulse, their industry news service, the newsfeed is the principal way one can surface content within the network. By showing you content your connections have liked or commented on (not even shared necessarily), one is exposed to more content, and all within the context of it already being engaged with by a connection of yours. That creates a mindset and context predisposed to doing likewise – it’s an affinity bias.

These structural and algorithmic LinkedIn newsfeed changes have given a boost to the visibility of certain types of content. All of this sits within LinkedIn’s wider strategy of being a content destination, meaning driving user engagement and page views is significant for Microsoft’s new acquisition.

All of which is why we’ve seen a surge in posts like this:

LI post 1

Or this:

LinkedIn Pro-Emo 2

Or this:

LinkedIn Pro-Emo 3

And a couple more:

Picture4

Picture5

All of which has led to some to complain, or mock the rise of “Facebook type content” in LinkedIn.

These posts typically have a rags to riches human interest story, and are written in the first person.

So, why do they get shared?

In part this also reflects the psychological/emotional context in which people are using LinkedIn – a platform where people go to be the ‘best version’ of their professional selves. Users are an inherently aspirational, positive state of mind when browsing, imagining the career opportunities for themselves, predisposing them to respond to stories of others’ surprising tales of success.

We are, above everything, co-operative and empathetic as a species. Prisoner’s dilemma demonstrates this, amongst many other examples. The aspirational mindset one adopts entering LinkedIn supports this. As whilst one hopes for personal preferment, it isn’t a zero sum game, meaning others can also succeed, and indeed one hopes to see them do so. Others’ success is validation of our own decision to spend time within the platform.

The emotional response felt reading these stories is also significant. We respond to others’ vulnerability. This is enhanced by the relatability of these individuals, which also improves the likelihood you will engage with the content. Finally, and cynically, liking and commenting on others’ content improves one’s own profile views. It really is a virtuous cycle.

The real surprise is that brands haven’t started to deploy this with emotion-led case studies. For example, imagine a bank’s small business services posting updates about businesses they’ve funded. Theoretically it should be just as appealing.

So, where next for pro-emo content? Microsoft’s ambitions for their new acquisition aside, it feels likely to continue. It’s clearly added a layer of vibrancy to the newsfeed which LinkedIn has chased for years. Alongside this, the moaners are missing the obvious: vast numbers of people obviously relate to this sort of content. Much like the Daily Mail, it’s fine to personally not like it, but don’t project those views to the majority who respond in a visceral way to this potent mix of technical and emotional content.

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