Feb 11 2014, 7:52am CST | by Forbes
In August, contributor George Anders introduced readers to the concept of LinkedIn Groups’ Site-Wide Automated Moderating, or “SWAM” in LinkedIn Tells Noisiest Users To Hush, And a Ruckus Ensues.
For those unfamiliar with the policy, SWAM (an unofficial term) is LinkedIn’s “blunt instrument” for dealing with obnoxious posters or spam. What it means: If a moderator in any group flags a participant’s posts as unwelcome for any reason—real, imagined, temporarily or even by mistake—all future posts by the participant are also sent to the moderation penalty box in every other LinkedIn group, platform-wide. They’ve been “SWAM’ed”. Unless the policy changes at some future date, the penalty is forever, and there is no “undo”.
From the moment of SWAM-ing, all posts from that individual (comments, responses or questions) must await moderator review and approval before they appear. This is a giant obstacle in the respect that many group moderators are inattentive or absent, and even the most attentive moderators will only get to the flagged items at a pace of perhaps once a week.
The only remedy for a SWAM’ed individual is to petition every group moderator to manually “unflag” the user for that particular group. Customer service representatives apologize for the inconvenience, but can’t (or won’t) help. Meanwhile, many actual spammers simply create new identities after every blocking and continue to spam.
Why is this such a monumental problem? Numerous LinkedIn users and several experts have stepped forward during the past week to provide me with detail on the extent and scope of the aggravation (and even the negative impacts to their business) of SWAM.
First, a perspective from LinkedIn expert Jason Alba, author of “I’m on LinkedIn: Now What???” In addition to his LinkedIn expertise, Alba is the author and speaker who founded job search resource www.JibberJobber.com. Says Alba: “I would suggest that Groups (and group discussions) are the #1 feature in LinkedIn for most people who are proactively using LinkedIn. Marketers, business owners, etc. are trying to get known, make a name for themselves, hawk their wares, etc., and the best and easiest place to do it is with Groups (if they do it right).”
“I have gotten emails from people who used to be active in Groups who said they went completely moderated… and now they don’t get anything through. I am a group admin and I rarely take time to go through to see the moderated discussions… so I don’t, unless someone emails me and asks to approve their contributions. The seriousness of this is that people will stop using Groups if they can’t get their discussions or comments posted – they deem it a waste of time and move on…”
Perhaps no one has been more active in addressing the SWAM issue than Gary Ellenbogen, a professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Clifton, N.J. Ellenbogen created a SWAM support group on LinkedIn (he’s created a companion group on Google+ as well, which is the platform where many SWAM victims are beginning to migrate, he says).
In an informal survey in his LinkedIn SWAM Support group of 162 members Ellenbogen shows that 20% to 25% of people who’ve been wrongfully SWAM’d are terminating their Premium Memberships with LinkedIn as a result. Says Ellenbogen: “If even 1% of LinkedIn’s 250 million members were SWAM’d, that’s 2.5 million members. At 20% defection, 500,000 revenue producing memberships would be destroyed by SWAM. If those 500,000 Premium Members were paying for even the least expensive upgrade to Talent Basic membership at $49.95 per month, LinkedIn would lose $600 a year times 500,000 memberships–$300 million dollars per year.”
LinkedIn user Matthew Weaver, owner of Project Weavers LLC in Vienna, Va., predicts the number of LinkedIn users who’ve been affected by SWAM may actually be 10 million or more. Up until SWAM emerged, Weaver participated in 50 groups (9 of which he controls) and attributed 100% of his business traffic to LinkedIn. Post SWAM, his traffic spun to a halt. He has a contact base of 16,500 on LinkedIn, but now he participates only in the groups he is able to moderate directly.
Weaver evaluated the number of users who’d been affected by the universal SWAM policy in one of his groups of 5,000 at the end of August 2013 and determined that a full 4.57% had been wrongfully flagged. Extending that percentage to the full LinkedIn universe of 225 million (which is now 277 million according to current LinkedIn reports) would mean there are more than 10 million users unfairly affected by SWAM. Meanwhile, the level of spam in the groups, he reports, has gone up.
An internal source in LinkedIn has indicated these external estimates are greatly beyond the actual numbers of individuals flagged, which LinkedIn’s data indicates is closer to 100-200,000 in sum. The source declined to remark on any correlation between between the flagging and impact on LinkedIn revenue results, which were most recently reported last week, but noted that internal metrics show that spam diminished by 30-50% in the months that followed the rollout of the group moderation policies currently in effect. In a note of promising news, LinkedIn also confirmed there are further changes coming to its moderation policies shortly, which I will cover (hopefully within the coming weeks) in an additional post.
As to estimated impact on LinkedIn revenue, it is also important to note that while the vast majority of LinkedIn users use Groups and 60.6% consider Groups their third most valued LinkedIn feature, only 15.1% of LinkedIn users are paying subscribers, which is an important consideration in estimating the amount of revenue LinkedIn may be losing due to dissatisfaction over the issue of SWAM.
However, users such as Ellenbogen have ample reason to be angry about SWAM–his own SWAM-ing was the result of a moderator accident. He joined a group intended for only women participants, though the moderator–a man himself, ironically–had failed to mention or include the female-only criteria in the group’s description and simply “flagged” Ellenbogen and other men who enrolled in the group by mistake. When Ellenbogen pointed out the ramifications, the moderator sent a letter of apology, which Ellenbogen provided to LinkedIn’s Customer Support, to no avail. Not only did their “sorry about the inconvenience” response prove worthless, Ellengogen provided me with screen shots to show that all trace of the incident and interaction has been erased and removed from his customer service history by LinkedIn.
Ellenbogen has a harsh word for the SWAM issue—cyberbullying—but the situations of many of the individuals who speak up indicate the characterization is by no means overstated: Robert Fay, a business consultant in the Bay area and a member of 41 groups, told me “My name got flagged because I wouldn’t post a recommendation from someone who didn’t know me, nor would I reciprocate his incessant endorsements…. he didn’t know me, but he wanted revenge.”
“He was a moderator of a group that I had been invited to join, and he used that position to hurt me. He bragged later that he had told LinkedIn I was posting viruses through videos, or was connected to someone who had done this. I sent copies of his LinkedIn emails to me about his bragging to LinkedIn Customer Support. They didn’t care that they had gotten gamed and played. They said I should contact the group owners whose sites had revoked my ‘Approved to post’ permissions settings.”
To little avail. Social Media Expert Mark Vang (the individual who coined the name “SWAM”), a LinkedIn Group moderator with involvement in groups with as many as 700,000 members, has noted that LinkedIn’s secrecy around the sitewide power of the “Block and Delete” button is a part of the policy’s problem. Some groups are moderated by as many as 20-30 individuals, and there’s no way of telling for certain who blocked the individual in question, or why, he told reporter Sholto MacPherson who reported on the SWAM issue in August in an extensive article for Australia’s BoxFreeIT.
LinkedIn members such as Bernie Wieser, the president of Wild Rose Sustainability Services in Calgary, Alberta, who’ve actually gone through the laborious process of pleading their case with the moderators of every group where they’ve been affected, report an eventual success rate of approximately 30%. Says Wieser, “Of the moderators you can even reach, some can’t un-flag a SWAM-ed participant, even with instructions, or won’t. Many open group moderators don’t check their moderated queues at all. Some just delete everything in there.”
Wieser’s situation was one of the most egregious to emerge from the SWAM victims who spoke with me during my research for this piece. A former Premium member, Wieser belongs to 42 groups and had gained high marks for his positive contributions. Then he suddenly found himself SWAM-ed. As he traced his steps, he found the culprit – he and others who had worked to helpfully flag inappropriate job listings that popped up in one of their favorite groups suddenly found themselves flagged without warning by the group’s owner (who was quite possibly the actual perpetrator of the spam, Wieser now realizes). And the action affected each of them platform wide.
After going through some hoops, Wieser determined how to reach LinkedIn support and filed a complaint. LinkedIn’s response, he says: A cryptic “Thanks for telling us.” “But what about the fallout?” he replied. No response, and the ticket was closed. By now he was fired up enough to start another. Many frustrating encounters ensued. No help. He attempted to escalate the discussion. Still no help. Finally he tweeted LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner directly, as follows:
On Dec. 9: @jeffweiner Quitting linkedin; no escalation process for customer complaints
Response from LinkedIn Help: @LinkedInHelp 9 Dec@wildroseco We’re so sorry this has happened! What’s going on? Do you have a ticket number we can reference? -jlk cc: @jeffweiner
A letter arrived: 12/10/2013 9:01
My name is Katie, and I’m a Customer Advocacy Supervisor. Betsy asked that I review your inquiry and reach out to you.
I can confirm that the information Betsy and Zach provided is correct. As groups are a free feature, the functionality is the same for all members, regardless of their account type. Because of this, a refund is not applicable in this situation.
Customer Advocacy Supervisor
Katie, have you bothered to look into the circumstances behind my complaint? It doesn’t seem like you have, which is why I’ve escalated it beyond the help desk.
Now he was really fired up: @wildroseco on 10 Dec 13: @LinkedInHelp @jeffweiner I’ll be posting full transcripts publicly shortly, so my colleagues can tell if I am off base.
LinkedIn Help @LinkedInHelp 10 Dec: @wildroseco We would really like to help, can you provide us with your ticket number? cc: @jeffweiner
On 10 Dec 13, Bernie’s reply: @LinkedInHelp @jeffweiner 131205-004502 and 131206-007638
12/10/2013 11:52 A new letter arrives:
I can assure you that I have looked into your specific situation. We do not have the ability to remove the site wide “moderation required” status. Group management can do so on a group by group basis.
Customer Advocacy Supervisor
And the ticket was closed.
On 10 Dec. LinkedIn Help Tweets: @wildroseco It looks like our Groups team has been communicating with you today. Should you have any further questions, plz reply there. Jlk
[Says Bernie: "No longer public, no longer cc Jeff, pretty much a 'stop twittering about this.'”]
Bernie’s final response,10 Dec 13: @LinkedInHelp @jeffweiner and therein lies the problem. I still intend to post.
I have reviewed Wieser’s post, a work still in progress. It’s a good one. At the time of this posting it is not clear if he intends to publish it for certain, or where. One of the most poignant responses to SWAM comes from online business expert Matt Mansfield, and you can read his popular post Is This the Beginning of the End for LinkedIn Groups about the SWAM issue here.
Meanwhile, multiple SWAM-ed group members report the policy’s wrongful use has had a highly negative impact on their business. Weaver, for example, reports that after SWAM-ing, Requests for Proposals from his business diminished immediately from four per month down to one. He hopes LinkedIn will remove the policy. In a phone interview, he said, “For me, LinkedIn has severely diminished its value over the course of the year. I still use it, but minimally now. I basically only participate in my own groups, or groups I manage.”
Rini Das, CEO of Ohio-based PAKRA Games, estimates that 90% of her revenue used to come from LinkedIn traffic (a success rate so high she has actually been featured in promotions by LinkedIn’s own marketing team in webinars and in Harvard Business Review) but her business experienced a 30% drop in traffic during 2013 when she was wrongfully SWAM-ed. She has now regained the traffic, she says, by turning her focus to the Google Plus platform instead.
Das said to me in an email interview: “My biggest peeve with companies like LinkedIn (and Facebook and Twitter as well) is about who is in the long-term game?
“Contrast this with Google — Google always been in the long-term game, especially since they went public,” she said.
For the record, I have been a paying subscriber to LinkedIn for three years at the lowest level of $24.95 a month (I pay annually at a price of $279 per year). I am a member of 35 groups, but am a bit embarrassed to admit I’m a legitimately active participant in none (but they are extremely helpful when specialized needs for article sources arise, such as this week). The only premium service I’ve used is InMail, twice, I believe, but when I really needed it, it was worth the price to get a message to someone I didn’t know personally but had an urgent reason to reach.
I also noted with interest that one of my favorite expert sources, Wayne Breitbarth of PowerFormula, upgraded his own account to a paying membership this year on January 19, reporting on his blog “I finally did it. After four years on LinkedIn, I’m now a paying member on the site.” Breitbarth hasn’t remarked publicly on the issue of SWAM, but notes that he was tired of not being able to review the full list of people who had viewed his profile, and that he was happy to eliminate the money he’d been spending to send individual InMail’s at the cost of $10 apiece.
For the many SWAM victims whose stories I didn’t have the space to include in this column, I apologize. My inbox has been overloaded with responses. I invite you to add your stories to this dialogue in the comment section below. To all LinkedIn users: how serious do you consider the issue of SWAM, and is it detrimental enough you will be reconsidering your LinkedIn Group or marketing efforts or even withdrawing entirely from LinkedIn? I am heartened to hear LinkedIn’s assurances that there are modifications coming to these policies shortly. As always, I look forward to your remarks.
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