LinkedIn ran experiments on more than 20 million users over five years that, while intended to improve how the platform worked for members, could have affected some people’s livelihoods, according to a new study.
In experiments conducted around the world from 2015 to 2019, LinkedIn randomly varied the proportion of weak and strong contacts suggested by its “People You May Know” algorithm — the company’s automated system for recommending new connections to its users. The tests were detailed in a study published this month in the journal Science and co-authored by researchers at LinkedIn, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University and Harvard Business School.
LinkedIn’s algorithmic experiments may come as a surprise to millions of people because the company did not inform users that the tests were underway.
Experts who study the societal effects of computing said conducting long, large-scale experiments on people that could affect their job prospects, in ways that are invisible to them, raised questions about industry transparency and research oversight.
“The findings suggest that some users had better access to job opportunities or a meaningful difference in access to job opportunities,” said Michael Zimmer, an associate professor of computer science and the director of the Center for Data, Ethics and Society at Marquette University.
The study in Science tested an influential theory in sociology called “the strength of weak ties,” which maintains that people are more likely to gain employment and other opportunities through arms-length acquaintances than through close friends.
The researchers analyzed how LinkedIn’s algorithmic changes had affected users’ job mobility. They found that relatively weak social ties on LinkedIn proved twice as effective in securing employment as stronger social ties.
The goal of the research was to “help people at scale,” said Karthik Rajkumar, an applied research scientist at LinkedIn who was one of the study’s co-authors. “No one was put at a disadvantage to find a job.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.