LinkedIn’s “Economic Graph” as Algorithmic, Global Labor Brokerage and Panopticon

Silicon Valley labor law violator LinkedIn has a vision — “the Economic Graph” — and it’s sponsoring a $25,000 contest to find “researchers, academics, and data-driven thinkers” to help them make it a reality.[1] Here’s the vision in short form:

There are approximately 3 billion people in the global workforce. LinkedIn’s vision is to create economic opportunity for every one of them. The development of the world’s first Economic Graph will lead to making that vision a reality. This, of course, is no easy task. Our vision is grand, but it’s not unattainable.

And in more detail from the FAQ:

LinkedIn’s vision is to create economic opportunity for every member of the global workforce. The Economic Graph is our vision to digitally map the global economy, providing all the necessary elements to connect talent with opportunity at massive scale.

Specifically, we aim to have a profile for every one of the more than 3 billion members of the global workforce, a profile for every company in the world – and who you know at those companies up to three degrees – all the job opportunities those companies offer, every skill required to obtain those opportunities, and a presence for every higher education organization in the world offering a way to acquire those skills. It will overlay the professionally relevant knowledge of every one of those individuals, companies and universities to the extent that they want to publicly share it [and are not forced to by potential employers, or it cannot be inferred from metadata in the graph].

The Economic Graph will allow all forms of capital – intellectual, working, and human – to flow to the areas where it [sic] can best be leveraged, giving all LinkedIn members the means to begin, grow, and transform their careers.

Entries will be judged for novelty, impact, and feasibility (SlideShare with detailed rules[2]). What could go wrong?

How LinkedIn Works

Personally, I don’t use LinkedIn because it strikes me as bogus — More social to maintain! More stupid tags! More people I would never want to meet trying to get in touch with me! — which I suppose completely disqualifies me for employment at companies where “HR” thinks LinkedIn is important, in “the feeling is mutual” fashion. So my understanding of LinkedIn’s benefits is shallow, though I have to say I don’t know anybody, personally, who’s ever benefitted from it; readers will doubtless correct me. That said, here’s how the Senior Director of Engineering at LinkedIn, Deepak Agarwal, who also posts to the “Economic Graph” blog, says LinkedIn works:

Since the inventory of items we can display to users (e.g., feed updates, ads, news, people, jobs and others) is selected from a very large and dynamic pool, it is infeasible to select the best items for every user visit manually. We have built sophisticated machine learning and optimization algorithms to automatically recommend the best “items” to users in a given context at scale. Such automation improves the relevancy of products at low marginal cost and hence contributes to the bottom line.

The algorithms we use are able to combine various data sources to perform such recommendations. We are fortunate to have rich profile data about our users; we know who they are connected to [this is the “graph” data structure], and we understand past user interactions on various devices.

For users who visit very often, we are able to provide deeply personalized recommendations. The sporadic visitors are automatically grouped into homogeneous cohorts by algorithms, and we provide best recommendations for each such cohort. We adapt our recommendations in real time based on what our users have consumed in the past. The entire end-to-end machinery has to work together to improve the relevance of our products.

So, OK. The more you use LinkedIn, the better the recommendations. What happens when Mr. or Ms. HR Person uses LinkedIn’s “Economic Graph” to broker recommendations is the subject of this post. As I hope the title flags with the word “Panopticon,” this is not a research paper; heck, I’m just a blogger working from simple, basic assumptions.

Basic Assumptions

Let’s get a sense of reality about the global labor market — that 3 billion strong “workforce” — right away, because whoever authored that FAQ has a severely limited understanding of it, doubtless due to a meritocratic and/or technocratic déformation professionnelle. First, most of the people in that workforce, unlike the author, don’t have “careers”; they have “jobs.”[3] Nor do the overwhelming majority of those people have “professionally relevant knowledge” (i.e., credentials), although many of them are highly skilled. Second, the global economy doesn’t exist to create “opportunity” (four times mentioned); it exists to accumulate capital. Third, the labor market isn’t about connecting “talent with opportunity”; it’s about connecting those who pay wages with those who work for wages, and there’s a significant and intrinsic imbalance of power and privilege between those two classes of people, which you know about if you’ve ever been called in to the boss’s office. Finally, if indeed “the Economic Graph will allow all forms of capital … to flow to the areas where it can best be leveraged,” one might well ask oneself which class will benefit most from that “best,” and how they will define it. My guess would be that the benefits will go to the owners of capital — those who pay the wages — “best” having been defined as having accumulated the most capital in the shortest possible time. Not that there’s anything wrong with any of this, we’ve been doing this for a few centuries now, but isn’t it best to be clear?

Global Race to the Bottom on Wages

To begin with, let’s think through what happens when the “Economic Graph” really does profile all workers and all skills. What happens when Mr. or Ms. HR Person starts receiving algorithmically generated “deeply personalized recommendations” on global scale? Well, since LinkedIn adapts itself to the user, it’s going serve up recommendations that amount to the highest possible productivity for the lowest possible wage; since that will have been what the Ms. or Mr. HR Person has trained it to do. Here are a few ways these recommendations might work.

First, the recommendations will minimize the ability of workers to arbitrage wages based on their country of residence, rather like outsourcing on steroids. Some job categories, mostly to do with tangibles, will be more or less exempt from this — personal services (nail salons), physical labor (warehouse work, stocking, construction), conviviality and hospitality (restaurants, funeral homes), extraction (oil), but it’s easy to hear the giant sucking sound as professional services like computer programming, or graphic design, or the arts, all go the way of manufacturing. Lawyers and accountants may be able to hold onto their positions for awhile, because their subject matter is so obfuscated, but wait ’til TISA kicks in. Sure, we’re privileged in the States, even now, but will the hollowing out never stop?

Second, the recommendations will minimize the possibility of collective action by workers. You are Ms. or Mr. HR Person seeking 20 truckers. Do you hire the Teamsters for more? Or the independents for less? And how do the Teamsters prevent their own members from bleeding over into the Independent category?

The Panopticon and Your Permanent Record

Here let’s introduce the notion of your “permanent record,” which the “Economic Graph” clearly is: “a profile for every one of the more than 3 billion members of the global workforce.” As Edward Snowden says:

I think a person should be able to dial a number, make a purchase, send an SMS, write an email, or visit a website without having to think about what it’s going to look like on their permanent record. Particularly when we now have courts, reports from the federal government, and even statements from Congress making it clear these programs haven’t made us any more safe, we need to push back.

Well, I don’t think my work history should be completely opaque, but I’ve got concerns that basically fall into the “You’ll never work again” category. America used to be “the land of the second chance,” back in the day when there was a frontier, and back in the day when everything wasn’t digital. It was possible to fail, move, start over, and build a new life. I just don’t see how that dynamic is possible with the “Economic Graph.” Mr. or Ms. HR Person already hates a “gappy” resume; how much more will they hate a resume with those gaps filled in? Even if the gaps have nothing to do with your ability to do the job? I can think of two kinds of gaps, at least:

First, the downwardly mobile — like a ton of us in this economy — who see a chance to be upwardly mobile again. The “Economic Graph” makes it much easier for Mr. or Ms. HR Person to filter them, by which I mean us, out. When we’re seeking a job in the field that used to be ours, do we put those three years as a hospital orderly in our profile? Or do we leave a gap? The same applies, but even more forcefully, to those who moved into System D. Do we put “three years working under the table in construction” in our profile? Or do we leave a gap? In either case, gap, or not, will LinkedIn’s recommendation system helpfully filter us out? Remember that, already, being unemployed is already a disqualification for being employed again!

Second, not important numerically, but important societally, what about whistleblowers? Whistleblowers tend not only to be downwardly mobile, but to be retaliated against by their companies. How will LinkedIn’s recommendation system handle that?

Discrimination Laundering

The “Economic Graph” would enable “discrimination laundering” by Mr. or Ms. HR Person. They could:

  • Hire on the basis of race
  • Hire on the basis of age
  • Hire on the basis of sex
  • Hire on the basis of religion
  • Easily create job requirements that could only be met by cronies

Think this is farfetched? It’s not. An “on line job search expert” gives 5 reasons why you should include a photo[4] in your profile:

5 Reasons You Must Have a Photo in Your LinkedIn Profile

  • Credibility
  • Recognition
  • Consistency
  • Personal Appeal
  • Personal Branding

All good reasons — especially if you’re so desperate for a job that “personal branding” appeals — but notice also that your photograph will certainly reveal your race, age, and sex, and may even reveal your religion (through dress or adornment).

Now, of course discrimination is practiced today; all these things are practiced already, and on LinkedIn, but not — in the phrase that LinkedIn is fond of using — at scale, using the “Economic Graph.” For example, Mr. or Ms. HR Person could scan “the Economic Graph” for the desired and discriminatory results, and then, by “parallel construction,” launder the discrimination by reverse engineering the job requirements to achieve them. How would anyone know?[5]


The “Economic Graph” seems to be built on the idea that transparent hiring is necessary for capital accumulation. It may be. But I’m not so sure that transparency is a value in itself, any more than capital accumulation is. Here’s an example as described by Abbie Conant:

The representation of women in Germany’s major orchestras is is only 11%. It is also notable that many Central European orchestras have only have a token representation of women …

These orchestras are clearly misogynistic. The 16% representation of women in German orchestras is not even half of what it is in the United States and in several other European countries. These statistics are from 1994 and might have changed slightly since then, but the relative proportions remain similar. …

I did not know anything about the status of women in German orchestras when I arrived Germany. I did not know that I would be struggling through some of the worst experiences of my life, simply because I was a woman trombonist. I think that many of you might already know something about my tribulations in the Munich Philharmonic. To win the job, I defeated 32 male candidates. Briefly stated, the orchestra didn’t know that I was a woman, and when I stepped from behind the first round screen at the audition, they were quite dismayed.

It was only the second time in the history of the Munich Philharmonic that a screen had been used, and both times they ended up hiring a woman. In fact, we were the only two women in the wind section. To this day, eighteen years later, a screen has never again been used, and no more women have been given permanent contracts in the wind section.

Like I said: An imbalance of power and privilege. The profiles of the “Economic Graph” would remove that screen for 3 billion people. That wouldn’t be fair. The “Economic Graph” as conceived and described by LinkedIn would certainly have destroyed “opportunity” for the “talented” Conant, not created it. Hence, I’m uncertain, to say the least, that LinkedIn’s vision is an unalloyed good.

Now, if there were a way, globally, to make the “Economic Graph” serve the public purpose of creating “a job for everyone who wants one,” that might be another matter. But I don’t see how Mr. or Ms. HR person can do that, or have any incentive to do that, given that public purpose is not their goal, nor, for that matter, the goal of the “Economic Graph.”


[1] What is it with these Silicon Valley types and decimal points? Considering the value of this project to LinkedIn if it succeeds, I’d say they must have meant to move the decimal point at least one notch right.

[2] To be fair, contestants retain ownership rights to their proposals, and results may be Creative Commons-ed (slide 6). On the other hand, LinkedIn “reserves the right to modify these terms at our sole discretion” (slide 10). Disputes will be resolved through arbitration (slide 11).

[3] Pet peeve: One does not “grow” a career, any more than one “grows” a business; this vile locution is a category error. Organic beings — plants, animals — grow and are grown. Careers and businesses do not and are not.

[4] Weirdly, LinkedIn’s policy is that “your photo can be removed by LinkedIn if your profile image is not your likeness.” How do they find out?

[5] We might also put the “Economic Graph” under the rubric of “Code Is Law,” given that its technical capabilities could render vast swaths of employment law unenforceable. See here, here, and here.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. vlade

    I did benefit from Linked-in as about two years ago I got asked for about two hours worth of consulting (at partner-at-high-end-consultancy rates). Doubt I’ll ever get anything more out of it though. It also serves as a repository for contact info on people I’d otherwise contact once in a blue moon.

    But otherwise I spend maybe five minutes of every quarter on it.

    1. Larry

      I too use Linkedin to maintain contacts with my lose social network of friends and former co-workers. I have put people in contacts to help with a job search, but for me Linked in has not been helpful in finding a job. It’s clear that they want to make it into a social network akin to Facebook, but the content is so terrible and the notifications so pointless, I just can’t imagine spending time on it.

      1. ChrisPacific

        I use it and like it for the same reason. In theory I could stay in touch with all of these people via personal contacts, but it would be a lot of work and I’m lazy when it comes to that kind of thing, so it’s 99% likely that I wouldn’t. Every now and then I go and look at a few that I haven’t seen for years and look at what jobs they’ve held since then. It’s also a convenient way to connect with someone you’ve met in person (and connect again in future, should you need to do so) and largely makes physical business cards obsolete.

        I am uninterested in most of what LinkedIn would like to recommend to me – generally if there’s something I want to know then I’ll search for it. I do like seeing major updates from my contacts, like job changes, although LinkedIn is notoriously bad at telling a real job change from a fake one (change in job title, company rebranding etc.) so I take them with a grain of salt. They send me a weekly news digest as well, which is 99% worthless click bait stuff, but I do look at articles every now and then (often to marvel at the kind of thing people are willing to say in public on a professionally-focused social network).

        If you are careful about how you use it, I think it’s fine. You don’t have to include anything that you wouldn’t put on a resume, which potential employers would presumably see anyway. It’s Facebook for business, which makes it useful for that reason alone. “Sorry, my Facebook is for personal matters only, but I can give you my LinkedIn profile.”

  2. diptherio

    Recently used it to get in touch with someone a colleague recommended talking to. I sent them a LI message, but had to lie to LI to get them to let me send it, since LI doesn’t like you to contact people you don’t already know somehow. Apart from that, I rarely use LI. I’ve got a profile, but for the same reason I keep a facebook and twitter profile: so I can see what other people are doing, not really to use it myself.

    And how about some transparency for the employers? Shouldn’t LI inform prospective employees about how many labor-law violations, sexual-harrasment complaints, etc. a potential employer has? Seems only fair…

    1. Ed S.

      For prospective employees, read Glass Door.

      Uncanny as to work environment – it’s accurately reflected how the last three places I’ve worked at.

      Much like Amazon reviews — if they’re all crappy (except for one) — there’s a reason

  3. JCC

    Speaking of LI’s support of the Panapticon… the propaganda seems to be prepping this as a Good Thing.

    (Coincidentally, this showed up in my LI email news spam today)

    1. jrs

      Well matching people with jobs is something that is done very poorly at present, so the desirability of such is obvious.. But there’s not enough jobs regardless. And a for profit company doing the matching via profiles in which you should include a pic and non job related things may come to be known about you, is another thing entirely.

      1. hunkerdown

        Matching people with jobs used to be called “training” and “interviewing”. Whatever happened to that? ;)

        As for pics, isn’t it customary in some countries (Switzerland comes to mind) to include a head shot and personal mini-bio? How do they manage to prevent employment discrimination?

  4. TarheelDem

    Is there an NC policy that prevents me from sharing this post on Facebook? Most other posts work fine, and I reach a few people who otherwise would not know NC exists.

      1. TarheelDem

        Message I’m getting from the FB button on the bottom of the article in the button row:

        October 2014 Archives – naked capitalism

        Sorry, we can’t find that page!You tried to find: linkedin-economic-graph-algorthmic-global-labor-brokerage-panoption We can’t locate the page you’re looking for. Try some of the options below to find what you want: Try searching for words in the article title: Search for: Or try browsing the Naked…

  5. John Doe

    Can you see the next step with regards to trade agreements? When companies will demand an unlimited amount of visas for a global workforce. You can apply on-line and have it printed as soon as an HR person pushed the button for the offer. A global race for the lowest wages where goods, services and the workers are all shuttled around as needed.

  6. bmeisen

    Respekt! Lambert for summarizing your review of an unusual linkdin project by hauling out a 1998 article citing 1994 data about mysogyny in central (i.e. Germanic) European orchestras. As for the article, I have no doubt that it was very bad. A friend is a 2nd violinist in a state orchestra in Baden-Württemburg and my wife is a full-time academic in Hessen. Some progress has been made since 1998. As an American feminist however I remain frustrated by the entrenched conservatism governing important aspects of family and gender politics in German-speaking central Europe. Ironically German maternity/family leave provisions are generous in comparison to those in the US, as are public health care benefits. Also it’s interesting to note that we, German taxpayers, fund 23 times as many orchestras as do taxpayers in the US (from the conant site:
    As for linkdin, I expect it will suffer from American exceptionalism in that their “economic graph” is likely to be biased by American preferences in ideas about education and qualification. How are they going to accomodate differing approaches to qualification and training? Possibly by subsuming all forms of career training under a BA rubric, as effectively the basic form of career qualification available to 310 million Amercians is the BA (of which an associates degree is one half).

    1. Chris

      “German taxpayers fund 23 times as many orchestras…”. So (assuming the 1998 article is still reasonably accurate), German taxpayers fund a lot of men (and very few women) playing trombones and other orchestral instruments.

      This fits with a theme I have been seeing here (NC comments) more and more lately: distribution.

      1. bmeisen

        might be getting closer to 30 times – I can’t imagine bush or Obama increasing arts funding. I bet Merkel’s governments and the individual state budgets have held steady with arts funding at least nominally. Berlin had 3 state opera companies and at least 2 state symphony orchestras the last I checked, though there was lots of talk in the 00s of closing one opera. So yes we, taxpayers in Germany, fund a lot of men playing instruments and increasingly more women. On Friday I attended a concert of Hessen’s flagship orchestra, The Hessen Radio Synphony Orchestra, and there were lots of women on stage. Also note that musicians performing in GErman orchestras are overwhelmingly “Festangestellte”, i.e. they have enviable job security and splendid benefits including close to 6 weeks of paid vacation. Furthermore opera companies typically employ more than musicians. Each Berlin opera had hundreds of full-time Festangetstellte. Again I don’t doubt that Conant had an awful time as a trombonist in Munich, and maybe the pay and benefits were pretty good.

    2. hunkerdown

      It seems that wherever gender equality improves by American standards, the facts of distribution get worse by any socialist’s standards. Is American (white) feminism anti-socialist? Is it intrinsically neoliberal? It’s worth asking whether any aspect of American culture is a useful benchmark by which to judge any other culture, or whether American Whigs should be firmly instructed in the value of leaving well enough alone.

    3. jrs

      If it’s a plan to hire the cheapest labor, who really cares what the educational qualifications are.

  7. jgordon

    This appears to be an effective method of severing people from the industrial economy. This is positive in the larger picture, for the health of our culture and the planet. I see very clearly the myriad beliefs, biases, and false assumptions pervasive in Western societies, inculcated by cultural myths and television programming, myths that few have the insight to even know exist–let alone question. As more people are kicked out from the safe, warm bosom of corporate/government employment and consumer culture, thanks in no small part to the good works of linkedin, such knowledge will become readily apparent to increasing numbers of people. And with such people we can begin discussing effective strategies to mitigate the full horrific onslaught humanity and the planet will be experiencing from here out.

  8. craazyman

    We should start a “Linked Out”.

    Here’s the slogan:
    “Connecting people who aren’t ‘consumers’ or corporate farm animals.”

    Here’s the “About Linked Out” web site blurb
    Linked Out is the networking hub for creative, intelligent, independent, conscientious, self-directed and highly productive human beings who puke in the general direction of insipid buffooneries like Linked In, Twitter and Faceplant. Linked Out members are potentially the best hires an employer can make. It’s too bad most corporate employers are too stupid to make use of such a skilled labor pool and too unethical to tolerate free-thinking employees with a conscience anyway. In fact, Linked Out members could run your company better than you can. Too bad for you they won’t work for a bozo without laughing in his or her face. hahaha.

    1. jgordon

      “It’s too bad most corporate employers are too stupid to make use of such a skilled labor pool…”

      The Archdruid calls it the “Senility of the Elites” while Dmitry Orlov refers to “Organizational Studidity”. It is the nature of human institutions that they become sclerotic and unable to adapt. At this point only bland conformity is rewarded while innovation and intelligence, both internal and external, become dire threats to the organization. All of our legacy corporate and government bodies are well into that phase now. So it would be wise to just ignore/circumvent the legacy organizations and organize new institutions and ways of operating to get things done in their place. Linked out is a great idea to get that process started I think. Let’s do it.

    2. Simon Girty

      I’ve always thought of LinkedIn as a scarier update of an old Betty Boop cartoon, apparently about an earlier iteration of fraternal networking, though I won’t mention names? It seems to spoof e-mails every few weeks, to each and every person on the zombiefied ‘pooter? Some of us have just been trying opt-out our entire lives!

      Wanna JOIN???

  9. Chris in Paris

    RE LinkedIn, I’ve made the sad observation that its only use for me is as a signal alerting me that a former colleague is soon to be fired – when I get a connection request. Recruiters also seem to use it to offer me jobs that don’t exist so they can access my entire profile and probably do something big data-related with it.

  10. Jay M

    it is one of those seven degrees of separation things
    i mean, you know 1 VP sales fugedaboutit molto connections
    it’s 13 dimensional chess for the mentally impaired

  11. Collin

    but it’s easy to hear the giant sucking sound as professional services like computer programming, or graphic design, or the arts, all go the way of manufacturing. Lawyers and accountants may be able to hold onto their positions for awhile, because their subject matter is so obfuscated, but wait ’til TISA kicks in. Sure, we’re privileged in the States, even now, but will the hollowing out never stop?

    That is, I suspect, the point of this all. Google has already begun sponsoring projects to make software development outsourcing easier and has been selling it to their own employees as a way of helping the third world. Outsourcing is now a “feel good” activity.

    Lawyers are already feeling this as larger law firms have begun to follow the modern consulting model with a few well-paid principals and a mass of regularly replaced novices. And services like RocketLawyer have begun to take a bite out of the rest.

    As regards the Panopticon. The CEO of LinkedIn attended a panel at Builderberg this past year entitled “Does privacy even exist” so there you go.

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