Can Developers Help LinkedIn Learn to Have Fun?

LinkedIn’s opening of its platform to a wider audience of developers last week offers a crucial opportunity for the company to overcome one of its biggest self-inflicted impediments: its aversion to fun.

The online social network for professionals has been far too slow to adopt the openness that has fueled the growth of other social platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. That hesitation has stemmed mainly from an overdone desire to avoid being perceived as another online time-waster. When LinkedIn opened its platform to a small stable of investors in 2007, the company’s then-CEO, Dan Nye, told The New York Times, “We have no interest in doing it like Facebook with an open API, letting people do whatever they want. We’re not going to have people sending electronic hamburgers to each other…When you go to LinkedIn, we want you to be confident you can accomplish your goals, be productive and move on with your day. We are not trying to get you to come back multiple times throughout the day.”

That last sentence in particular is an odd notion for a company that reportedly gets about a third of its revenue from advertising. But more importantly, those comments evince a dangerously narrow strategy and an unhealthy separation of business and pleasure. However work-oriented LinkedIn may want to be, it will be hard for it to sustain broad user engagement if the site’s not fun to use.

Adding applications that are fun to use could keep a broad base of users involved while furthering the site’s mission to aid user productivity. It’s not hard to imagine fun Facebook- and Twitter-type apps that fall right in line with the company’s existing features. For example, LinkedIn already tries to encourage networking through reaching out to contacts of contacts. Wouldn’t it be more useful (and fun) to have an app modeled after the Six-Degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon game that shows you how connected you are to the people and organizations you want to influence by tracing, quantifying (and even visually illustrating) lines of contact?

LinkedIn also offers an app to track “buzz” about a given company, but it might be even more valuable to have one that follows what people in a given industry or ad hoc contact list (like “My Silicon Valley VC Contacts”) are talking about. Such a service might mimic what teens are doing on Twitter, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be valuable in the business world.

Another example: LinkedIn already offers an “Answers” app that lets people show off their own knowledge by answering other users’ questions. It’s not that hard to imagine games, quizzes and contests that accomplish the same goal but in a richer way. If you earned points according to how good your answers were, you could brag about being the best authority on a given subject.

In fact, these points could also be used as a kind of virtual currency, in countless ways far more productive than buying virtual burgers. For example, Answers Points could grant one access to certain clubs or higher tiers of membership, in line with LinkedIn’s current premium offerings. They could also be used to gain access to fun, socially oriented live online events — discussions with industry luminaries, for example.

There’s a reason so many trade shows are in Las Vegas and Orlando, Fla., why so many trade show booths have magicians, and why so many exhibitors hold cocktail parties during the show. The temptation of fun is an effective business tool. Hopefully LinkedIn’s new developers can help demonstrate that.

Question of the week

What applications would help LinkedIn be more fun to use?
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