SocialTech Tuesday: Have You Been SWAM’d?

For important reasons, today’s post is longer than normal, and I hope you will take time to read through to the end. Your comments are also appreciated!

Since today is SocialTech Tuesday, it seems appropriate to jump into a controversy that has ignited a firestorm of angry discussion among LinkedIn members. Many people are incensed over a new LinkedIn policy introduced (very quietly) in January. The policy relates to groups and is called Sitewide Auto Moderation dubbed SWAM.

Though I am a LinkedIn power user and am pretty well versed in the platform, I had no idea that this policy had been introduced. Chances are that as a group member or a group manager/moderator, you didn’t know about it either. In fact, it seems the only way that people found out about the policy change is if they personally became affected by it. I found out about it a few days ago when a colleague of mine was SWAM’d and asked me if I knew anything about what was going on. That’s when I started digging.

In essence here’s what the policy is all about.

In an effort to reduce spam in the discussion area of groups, which I support by the way, LinkedIn made it possible to force an automatic moderation of posts and comments across “all groups” by any member who had been blocked in just one of the groups that they belonged to. The assumption is that if a Group Manager deemed you a spammer in their group, then all your posts and comments were suspect in other groups as well. While I appreciate the spirit and intent of the new policy, I believe it is pretty far reaching and perhaps pushes the boundaries of censorship.

The official policy is this…

“If a group manager blocks you from their group, your posts to other groups are automatically subject to moderator approval. Your postings to other groups are still submitted, but they are now pending until a member of the group’s management team approves it for posting.”

That means that those messages sit in a cue waiting for a group manager or their team of moderators to approve the comments.

Why is this needed?

That’s the million dollar question, and I am wondering what is the REAL why behind this decision? Group managers have always had the ability to block someone in their group that they felt were spamming versus participating in group conversations. Why is Big Brother stepping in? Is there some reason that decisions cannot be left to the individual group managers? Why is LinkedIn arbitrarily deciding that an infraction in one group means the member is an offender in every other group?

Stop Drinking Your Own Kool-Aid

Is this yet another example of how companies become too internally focused when it comes to their decision making? Not only does it seem like the far reaching effects were not considered by asking tougher questions internally, it doesn’t appear that LinkedIn bothered to seek out external feedback either.

Here are other questions that I believe needed to be asked and answered before plowing ahead with this decision:

What is the ramification to the member if we put this policy/technology change into effect? LinkedIn will tell you that if you fall victim to being SWAM’d you only need to approach each Group Manager and ask them to reinstate you. Imagine you belong to 50 groups. Does LinkedIn really think that forcing someone to reach out to each group manager individually will be an easy task? Can you imagine the time it takes? What if those group managers aren’t actively managing their group and never bother to respond? It happens all the time and now the individual is sort of screwed if no one pays attention to their reinstatement request.

How will this affect revenue we earn from premium subscriptions? I will say up front that I do not believe premium members deserve special consideration per se, although you could argue that maybe new features should be rolled out to them first. What I do believe is that somebody should have done a little analysis to see what it means if premium members are being kicked to the curb by Group Managers with no notice, warning or explanation. As of this writing, I can’t give you numbers, but I can say that several hundred people affected have publicly said they reverted back to the “free” version. That lost revenue will start adding up.

Does each group clearly communicate guidelines with respect to what content is appropriate for posting in the “discussion” area? It is very easy to create group rules and remind members to read them. If there are no group guidelines, is it really fair to ban someone who chooses to post self-promotions? How can you be accused of breaking the rules if there are none?

What will be the administrative impact on Group Managers? One Group Manager told me that this new policy has placed an impossible burden on him. His group is quite large – 30,000+ – and overnight he started having upwards of 500 posts DAILY to have to moderate. Manually. The policy was intended to help deal with SPAM. Didn’t anyone ask the question about whether or not these group leaders would have the bandwidth to deal with the outcome of this decision?

Is it possible that Group Managers with an act to grind will use the ability to block people unfairly? In other words, is there a chance that knowing a member could be blocked in all groups, would they use that as an opportunity to retaliate for a perceived infraction, the fact that they didn’t like the individual’s comments, or worse, use it as an opportunity to put their competitors at a disadvantage? In the course of researching the situation, it does appear that there are instances of this happening.

What will this decision mean for the power that participating in groups has represented? Being able to contribute to conversations or start discussions gives a group member the ability to demonstrate their thought leadership and capabilities. Done smartly, that visibility leads to sales opportunities. But if members know that a Group Manager could get pissed off at them, cut them off because they didn’t like what they said or posted, or accidentally clicked on the wrong button, why would anyone waste time participating in groups at all?

Aren’t we obligated to clearly communicate this change to all members? For me, this is the most important question that LinkedIn should have asked. If you believe in the decision, why hide? Why not clearly communicate what you are doing and why and ask for feedback before actually putting it into application. It seems to be common practice for social sites to makes changes without bothering to tell anyone. When it comes to policy though, I think the company should be obligated to make a public statement. As a member of the platform, I’m bound by the terms of use, but if you keep slipping in whammies like this one, how is that really being transparent?

What will be the impact on our Customer Service team? My point above might have mitigated many of the support tickets and complaints being filed. Without having any knowledge of the change or what happened if a group member was blocked, hundreds of support tickets have been filed. That is a heck of a lot of manpower to waste.

I plan to keep watch with respect to this policy, so expect more posts to come.

For now I will close with the following…

After 29 years working in technology, I’ve seen a lot of big players come and go. Arrogance slowly creeps in as people think, we are big, bad and no one can touch us. LinkedIn is not immune to this insidious disease, which may be a small crack today, but a chasm in the not too distant future. Guaranteed, a band of super smart tech nerds are out there somewhere working away in their garage to create the next best thing.

When a social networking company forgets that it is the members that got them where they are now, the fall may be slow but it certainly will be imminent.

Comments

  1. says

    Barb,

    As a LinkedIn group “manager” I have witnessed first-hand the inconvenience that this new initiative has caused and it does seem that LI are moving into Facebook and Google territory with their arrogance.

    This is, in my opinion,, the second faux pas they have made in recent months; the first was the ridiculous introduction of the recommendation scheme, which frankly is as much use as a one-legged man in an ass kicking contest. Totally pointless and without value or credibility.

    At a time when LI are making giant strides in terms of their significance, I do hope they remember how and why they attained their current status – their membership.

    Jonathan

    • Barbara Giamanco says

      Thank you, Jonathan! When companies start to believe that they are all that and forget who helped them achieve the success they enjoy, they will discover that those same people can and will turn against them. There are other business networking sites out there and they would probably love it if there was a mass exodus from the LinkedIn platform.

  2. Gary says

    SWAM is an abusive, disrespectful and libelous abuse of many LinkedIn members who are nothing other than victims and have done nothing wrong.

    I have been a paying Premium member of LinkedIn for ten years.

    I REFUSE to give LI anymore of my money unless they repair my SWAM victimization. I will NOT renew my Premium membership unless SWAM is eliminated and the full, complete and normal functionality for victims like myself is reinstated.

    SWAM peer support group for those of us who have been victimized
    http://www.linkedin.com/groups?gid=4911853

    • Gary says

      LinkedIn 10-K 2012 Annual Report (filed Feb 19, 2013)

      http://investors.linkedin.com/secfiling.cfm?filingID=1271024-13-10

      I quote from this report
      “Our core value of putting our members first may conflict with the short-term interests of our business.”

      “One of our core values is to make decisions based on the best interests of our members, which we believe is essential to our success in increasing our member growth rate and engagement and in serving the best, long-term interests of the company and our stockholders. Therefore, in the past, we have forgone, and may in the future forgo, certain expansion or short-term revenue opportunities that we do not believe are in the best interests of our members, even if our decision negatively impacts our operating results in the short term. In addition, as part of our philosophy of putting our members first, as long as our members are adhering to our terms of service, this philosophy may cause disagreements, or negatively impact our relationships, with our existing or prospective customers. This could result in enterprises and professional organizations blocking access to our services or refusing to purchase our Talent or Marketing Solutions or Premium Subscriptions. Our decisions may not result in the long-term benefits that we expect, in which case our member engagement, business and operating results could be harmed. ”

      “If we do not continue to attract new customers, or if existing customers do not renew their subscriptions, renew on less favorable terms, or fail to purchase additional solutions, we may not achieve our revenue projections, and our operating results would be harmed.”

      • Barbara Giamanco says

        I have heard it said often that LinkedIn makes decisions by putting the focus on members first. It doesn’t sound like the SWAM policy took members into consideration. Someone may have though that they were protecting the “rest of us” from anyone who was spamming, but as I said in my post, I believe they way overstepped their bounds.

  3. says

    Excellent article! You covered all the thoughts and spirits of the millions of lost SWAM’d soles! Hopefully this will go viral so the world will know how absurd this new policy is.

    • Barbara Giamanco says

      Thank you, Chuck. I’ve been using LinkedIn for 10 years, and I’ve always been a fan, but this really pushed the boundaries of what I feel is warranted and fair. I had to write about it. Help me make it go viral-:).

    • Matthew says

      Yes, by survey of one of my groups with just under 5,000 members, the percentage flagged by LinkedIn with “Requires moderation”, when extrapolated to the roughly 225 million members today, means that around 10 million profiles are SWAMed. The LinkedIn groups product manager says this number is “significantly” incorrect but won’t say if high or low and by how much. Says she is not allowed to say more! Probably because it is so embarrassing and LinkedIn has no clue how to respond and too invested in SWAM to offer a mea culpa and undo it.

  4. says

    Here is the nonsense reply I got from LI customer service about my having been SWAM’d

    Hi,

    I can understand your frustration and I’m sorry for the inconvenience. We don’t currently offer phone support but I can offer a more in-depth explanation of this issue.

    Something in your recent posting behavior caused you to be blocked and removed by the management of a specific group. As such, this block and removal triggered a quality control filter which puts all of your posts up for approval in each group you currently belong to. The group managers in each group can approve your posts individually or change your status back to “Approved to post” for their group. We leave this decision in their hands and we will not be able to lift your posting permissions in all of your groups without their consent.

    We suggest that each group’s management team review pending submissions on a weekly basis, but this is really up to each group’s owner and managers. We don’t interfere or participate in the group’s approval and denial process for pending submissions, and we don’t provide groups with any approval requirements. I’d encourage you to take the following steps to see if a group manager is open to be contacted:

    1. Click “Groups” at the top of your homepage.
    2. Locate the group where your membership is pending approval, and click “Send message”.
    3. Type your message and click “Send Message”.

    If you speak to a Group manager and they’re not sure how to lift your posting permissions, please have them contact us for further assistance.

    Thank you for your patience and cooperation.

    Best regards,

    Zach
    Groups Support Specialist

    • Barbara Giamanco says

      Gary – I feel your frustration! Putting the burden on individual members and group managers by implementing this “quality control” filter seems quite unnecessary given that group managers could always manage anyone they felt was an offender in their group. Keep me posted on any new developments.

  5. says

    Barb, I run the 25K member Inside Sales Experts group on LI and I had no idea this was happening. I do block self promotional repeat offenders from participating in our group (and yes our rules of engagement are published) but now will have to reconsider. That puts a much bigger burden on us as Managers. I need to think my way through this but wish the change had been communicated by LI. Thanks for the heads up!

    • Barbara Giamanco says

      Thanks for commenting, Trish. When I found out about the policy, I felt I had to write about it. I was discovering that almost no one knew about it. The fact that LinkedIn didn’t even make an effort to clearly communicate this to group managers, especially to the managers running huge groups like your is inexcusable.

  6. says

    LinkedIn’s direction is away from being a social network for professional collaboration and career management, and toward being on online content publisher: http://www.digiday.com/publishers/why-linkedin-is-a-sleeping-giant-of-publishing/

    Therefore LinkedIn places a much lower value on their Groups than in the past, and at some point, is likely to drop that functionality.

    LinkedIn’s current architecture is well out of date, isn’t scaling well for groups, and they can’t control Spammers’ fake profiles. On that last point, LinkedIn is in grave danger of SEC penalties if they continue to tout their membership growth without mention of the millions of fake profiles created by Spammers, and left open by LinkedIn even when real members provide plenty of evidence of the profiles being fake.

    I am placing my bets on free Groups going away, with only sponsored being allowed to continue on.

    By the way, here is how to eliminate LinkedIn Today and those annoying “Endorse this person” pop ups when you view a connection’s profile:
    By following the directions in this link, you also will get rid of LinkedIn Today : http://www.wildsocialmedia.com/new-linkedin-today-turn-it-off

    Once you add the Stylish extension to Firefox and Chrome, and add the script from the instructions in the above link to get rid of LinkedIn Today (or don’t add the script from the link if you like LinkedIn Today), add my additional lines to the Stylish script to get rid of Endorsement prompts:

    #suggested -endorsements {
    display:none !important;
    }

      • says

        Barbara,
        I tweeted Jeff Weiner\CEO and Reid Hoffman\Founder LinkedIn the link to your post. Hopefully they will become aware of the SWAM policy approved by one of their minions. If they already are aware, then LinkedIn has a dim future ahead of it!

    • says

      Barbara, Thanks for the post. I’m not a SWAM’r but I did have one group manager who thought my posts were sales oriented when I was posting articles not written by me giving meeting planners ideas on how to engage their event participants. I think she found me to be threat, so I dropped our of her group all together.

      Needless to say, I will definitely be more cognizant of what I post to LinkedIn groups.

      Kevin, thank you for sharing the information on how to hide LinkedIn Today. It was annoying to me too.

  7. Barbara Giamanco says

    Can’t wait to hear if they actually reply, Kevin. I know many people before for me have been trying to gain some type of resolution to the situation with little success. I’ll keep my fingers crossed, because although I’m not one of those affected, I sincerely feel for those that are.

    • says

      I am affected. The manager of a Formula One enthusiast group blocked and deleted me for politely asking her if she would consider ending the News feed (one week before LinkedIn shut it off for all groups) because the amount of news was pushing discussion threads 40-60 posts down each day.

      She decided that I was a troublemaker and she would get rid of me. OK, I wouldn’t want to stick around in a group with an unglued owner anyway. But her action placed me in SWAM across 48 groups (I own two groups of ~10,000 and ~7,000 members)

      I am aware of group owners B&D’ing competitors now that there is **some** awareness of SWAM, and I’ve also seen several politically motivated SWAM activities as well.

      Seems that LinkedIn is harboring plenty of nasty group owners and doesn’t have a problem with that fact!

  8. Matthew says

    I own and/or management nearly 10 groups with around 250,000 members on LinkedIn, am a paying member with over 13,000 connections, and a paying advertiser. SWAM is devastating to our LinkedIn groups and to members. As a victim of SWAM myself, my ability to participate in groups and the LinkedIn community is destroyed.

    Group owners and managers have the ability to block and delete members for whatever reason or whim that they choose—by some accounts even for blatantly discriminatory reasons. Beginning around January LinkedIn decided to take that group-level action, without asking why it occurred, and put the blocked member on site-wide automatic moderation (SWAM), then flagged them publicly to all groups with the announcement “Requires moderation”, again without asking why, without notifying the member, and without explaining the transgression, if any. When the member contacts LinkedIn Support they are told that it is not LinkedIn’s problem that LinkedIn did this, and direct the member to ask the group (but they won’t tell which one). They also claim they cannot undo SWAM (which is not true as I personally know of two people that had SWAM undone). They say, though, the only recourse is to contact all of the member’s other groups and beg them to reset the member to default permissions. But, this requires caution. As I and others have experienced, some groups will see LinkedIn’s flag and upon receiving the request, opt to block and delete the member as well. Their reasoning, apparently, is that if the member is such a risk that LinkedIn feels compelled to moderate them and warn groups, best to remove the member from the group before they cause them trouble as well.

    In a LinkedIn group set up to facilitate discussion about groups, the current LinkedIn groups product manager has recently decreed that no further discussion of SWAM would be allowed since it was too negative a topic. Further, in past statements, she says she won’t listen, won’t ask, and won’t share information about SWAM. We are shut out.

    The net result is that LinkedIn has implemented SWAM in the middle of the night without announcement and by all appearances fails to understand the destruction they have initiated. I have a vested interest in seeing SWAM undone and members restored. LinkedIn is, or rather, was an incredible and mutual success for the company and members. SWAM risks this.

    • Barbara Giamanco says

      Too negative a topic? Social networking and social media in general is about transparency. There is a serious problem when a company only wants to hear “positive” information coming from the community.

  9. says

    Barbara, I have posted about SWAM several times in groups I belong to and a group I co-manage. 99% of people react with disbelief that a public company can introduce a change like this with little or no consultation and then turn a deaf ear to the chorus of complaint that has followed as a result of its clumsy implementation. I have also been an active participant in the LinkedIn Group Product Forum where group owners and managers have been complaining loudly for several months about the impact of SWAM only to be fobbed off with lame corporate excuses about not being able to rush the software development process.

    • Barbara Giamanco says

      Greg – I’ve seen it before. No company is invulnerable to being turned on my their members. Think MySpace. As for the excuse about software development…what hogwash. They can rush anything that they feel is a priority. And, I think that’s the problem. LI doesn’t seem to appreciate the spirit of groups and community and how people leverage groups as part of their business building/credibility building process. That is unfortunate.

  10. says

    From the bubble I live in, all I can see is that SWAM has maximized
    1. False Positives: Catching non-spammers and making their LI groups engagement miserable.
    2. False Negatives: Missing Spammers left and right and increasing the moderation queue and making group moderators lives terrible.
    I am flummoxed that a data company will not reveal “before” and “after” stats how this implementation to the above to the group moderators.

    I am stunned that to date LinkedIn officially did not come out and respond to this — where’s the head of their PR sitting.

    I hope the analysts in the Q2 earnings reports coming up in few weeks asks Jeff Weiner et al questions such as (a) what is the “churn” of premier subscriptions (I too have given it up) and (b) what % of total new subscriptions are “fake profiles” and (c) have they heard about “SWAM” and its impact?
    what is their product road map

    • Barbara Giamanco says

      Rini – I continue to follow this and I know that the post is getting quite a lot of visibility inside LI, although I’m not sure that is making much difference. It is also getting quite a bit of traction on the web. As we all continue to keep the issue visible, my hope is that we get some sort of positive resolution.

  11. says

    Why fight it. Beat the rush and move any honest discussion off LinkedIn. The #oldmedia is clearly in charge their and setting up a Soveit style control of everything will kill them soon enough

  12. says

    It wasn’t so long ago that Jeff Weiner proudly said LinkedIn was all about “members first”. SWAM has shown how quickly a company can go off track. In early November Jeff Weiner explained to the New York Times:

    “So our culture has five dimensions: transformation, integrity, collaboration, humor, and results. And there are six values: members first; relationships matter; be open, honest and constructive; demand excellence; take intelligent risks; and act like an owner. And by far the most important one is members first. We as a company are only as valuable as the value we create for our members.”

    Less than two months later his minions implemented SWAM. As I write in my new blog post, SWAM is anything but members first.

    Read more in my blog at: http://www.projectweavers.com/linkedin-member-first-no-more/

    Thanks,
    Matthew

  13. J Dundee says

    Just curious, what happens to group moderators when THEY are flagged?

    Can they reinstate themselves to their own group? Could they retaliate ‘in kind’ to the moderator who flagged them if that moderator was in THEIR group? If so I could imagine a vengeful flagged moderator creating groups attracting unsuspecting moderators and then flagging the whole group!

    J

  14. says

    Barb,

    Thank you so much for this excellent article. This happened to me as well and I don’t spam and now am seriously considering whether or not to build my network on LinkedIN. No doubt that, even if flagged or blocked in one group, it shouldn’t affect in other groups. Perhaps a general blockage if say, for example, one were flagged in X number of groups during a given time period.

    Such a shame that LinkedIN is managing things this way. No one wins except perhaps, their attorneys.

    Thank you again, Ricardo

  15. says

    I agree with the story except that in one form or another the SWAM has being going on for far longer than here stated. I have been unable to freely comment after one comment was accidentally blocked by one single manager, and that was at least two years ago. Possibly the system has changed a little, but basically this abuse, without any time limit or mechanism of reversal has been in the LI system for a very long time.

    • Barbara Giamanco says

      Thanks for your comment, Richard. The post was actually written in July 2013 because the new SWAM policy had been instituted a month or so earlier.

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