LinkedIn has been the stealth social network, but today it finally started to make waves. At the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco this morning it unveiled a dramatic revamping of how it displays information to its members, suddenly becoming a serious player in search technology, and putting itself on the industry map in a big way.
LinkedIn has gradually been encouraging its members to post information about issues they care about, much like a business version of Facebook. But up until now those updates appeared in a modest spot at the bottom of home pages, and only included information about people users established connections to on the service.
Today's innovation is to expose the entire "stream" of data created by all of LinkedIn's users to all of its members, with extraordinarily sophisticated tools for filtering it and discovering relevant information. The product demonstrated at TechCrunch, still in beta mode and planned to roll out over coming months, is called Signal. LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner says "Extracting the signal from the stream is what we do now." This is a big change.
While Facebook dramatically aggregated 550 million active users of all sorts over the last six years, skewing toward the young, LinkedIn—almost a year older—quietly amassed 80 million. The difference is that LinkedIn's members are almost without exception sophisticated professional adults in business. If you are a serious executive you are almost certain to have created a profile on LinkedIn, even if you only created it to accept the frequent requests to connect. LinkedIn is, besides Facebook, the only other truly global social network.
It has been mostly a resume service, which many of us joined but spent little time thinking about, unless we were applying for a job or looking to hire someone. For those functions, LinkedIn is an unparalleled resource. Human resources departments lean on it heavily, paying hundreds or even thousands of dollars a month to do so. It became the first social network to be profitable—back in 2006—and today generates revenue of well over $100 million annually.
But those of us who have spent time marveling at the innovations of Facebook, Twitter, Google's various products, Microsoft's Bing, and other cutting-edge Internet products, LinkedIn has seemed soporific. No more.
This new way to filter and present information poses a challenge to Facebook, Twitter, Google, Microsoft, and every other company that is in the business of exposing relevant information to its users.
Signal appears, for now, as a separate page inside LinkedIn. In the center is a list of posts—links to articles, statements of opinions about current business or other developments, or whatever else someone posts on their profile. On the left hand column is a set of filters. You can pick your direct connections, second-degree connections (friends of friends), third degree, or anyone on LinkedIn. Other filters are for specific industries, companies, the time something was posted, or where the poster is located. All of these functions are customizable.
So now, if you want to see all the posts over the last day by Facebook employees who work in New York which reference the new movie The Social Network, you can do it. Or all posts by General Motors employees in the past month referencing Ford cars. Or everything said by people in the Internet industry who live in Columbus, Ohio about the book The Facebook Effect (a search I tried, since I'm the author—there were four posts). Your imagination is the only constraint.
Well, the other constraint is the amount of information available. My own experiments suggest there is already a huge amount of data ready to be exposed inside LinkedIn. And because everything everyone posts in this service, unlike in Facebook, is by definition public data, everybody's posts are searchable. What the company obviously hopes, and requires, is that its members will not only use this new capability to find information about others, but will be inclined to post more thoughts and links themselves, hoping to be more influential inside the community. That remains to be seen.
Nonetheless, this is a massive and historic shift for LinkedIn. No longer can we ever see it again as a static resume service.
LinkedIn is the creation of Reid Hoffman, who I often call the godfather of social media. He invented his first social site in 1997, called SocialNet—a dating service. He has always seen business social networking as a separate and large opportunity. He was an investor in the first round of Facebook, and holds a big chunk of the company, but sees LinkedIn as in a different business altogether. Last year he hired Weiner, who had formerly been a top executive at Yahoo, as CEO, and migrated his own time more toward investing, though he still serves as LinkedIn's chairman. Weiner—a visionary and big believer in the potential of the Internet to alter the world—went to work immediately. Signal is the first big sign of his influence. Expect more in the future.
Other companies will be paying all kinds of attention to what this now-innovative service is doing. This new way to filter and present information poses a challenge to Facebook, Twitter, Google, Microsoft, and every other company that is in the business of exposing relevant information to its users. We are likely to see imitators arise quickly, because it's a powerful way to find useful information.
In addition, I expect we'll see this company begin to be seen as the prize it should be. I can imagine good reasons why Microsoft, Google, Oracle, Cisco, Salesforce.com, IBM, or others might want to own LinkedIn. If it executes properly on this new vision and becomes the de facto best source for insider business information, its value could be huge. No longer is LinkedIn invisible in plain sight.
David Kirkpatrick writes about technology for The Daily Beast. A former Fortune reporter, he is the author of The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company That Is Connecting the World.