ShlinkedIn: A Satirical, Fully Open Source Social Network Parody

I had the pleasure of hearing from ShlinkedIn co-creator Charlie Holtz directly, who pitched his website better than I ever could have: ShlinkedIn has morphed from a very dumb idea to a very dumb idea used by thousands of people, which is more than we could have ever hoped for. The initial goal was to create a place for Sam (God Real on ShlinkedIn) and I to vent about how the lame business-speak is and add a little fun to our day. And the goal has stayed largely the same: we want to add a little humor to the world, and give people some (healthy) catharsis.

First things first: As the title says, ShlinkedIn is an open source social media project that parodies another popular website, but I will not reveal which. The GitHub project is hosted here, and it utilizes Phoenix/Elixir. I will not pretend to know a lot about the Phoenix Framework, or the Elixir programming language — I personally use Vue.js on everything frontend, even when it makes absolutely no sense to do so. On the client side, I am like a carpenter who tries to fix everything with the same hammer, including cars…on the server side, I let the backend developers use whatever the heck they want.

But enough about me. Once again, I will defer to Holtz himself:

I am such an Elixir/Phoenix fan. I discovered it about a year ago on Hacker News when I this post about building a twitter clone in 15min with Phoenix: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=22947341.

I had never used Elixir before, but was intrigued — and I gradually went down a rabbit hole of learning more and more about the language and framework. The first project I built with it was a collaborate game called https://www.becomeone.io. Then my second was Shlinkedin! I always prefer to learn languages/concepts by building stuff, and so ShlinkedIn was a great excuse for that. It’s still a new framework and it’s changing fast, but all for the better. I’m planning on putting all my learnings online someday.

As it currently stands, ShlinkedIn is a self-proclaimed side project; there is apparently no advertising, and it does not follow the common practice of selling user data to other companies. They are starting a voluntary paid tier. I did not send a follow-up email after receiving these responses, but I am curious why they have not also tried to start a Patreon. I once built my own fake Patreon (which I called Faketreon) in Vue.js, but it was statically hosted on GitHub Pages and simply sent donations nowhere.

I find this project fascinating and relevant to the software engineering industry for the following reasons:

  • It demonstrates the popularity of open source social media
  • It provides a potential business model, though I apologize to my readers for using the evil b-word
  • Holtz’s statements about the value of “building stuff” to learn ties well with many themes, from personal projects to career development. They had to design this, scale it, and then open the door for potential collaborators to join in. It really caught on. Here it is trending on HackerNews, here it is with 550 upvotes on r/Linux, and here is their own post about it on r/sideproject
  • It parodies LinkedIn, which is where a lot of us spend our time nowadays

Charlie Holtz

Holtz currently resides in New York City and works at a company called Point72. He graduated from Brown with a degree in Cognitive Neuroscience. He is also the creator of a technology product called Goodnight Zoom, which is well documented in the newsletter One Year Wiser.

My Personal Experience with ShlinkedIn

I arrived on the ShlinkedIn scene as the CEO of a made-up company called CORGICorporation, hosted on GitHub pages and originally “launched” as an April 1 joke to target a particular financial MLM I dislike. I began to notice a rather popular user called Office Spider, who enjoys telling cliche corporate stories that quickly devolve into horror. Wanting to get the user’s attention, I endorsed Office Spider for “buggy websites” and “first-degree murder.” Office Spider, in turn, endorsed me for “inadequate cleanliness” and “provides excellent space for web development.” Shortly after, the user claimed to have laid eggs in my brain.

I was pleased to see Office Spider comment on one of my own posts. As the CEO, software engineer applicant, and head of HR at CORGICorporation, I decided to write three separate posts about being in three different positions for the same company. Inspired by Office Spider, I tried to make it dark.

The peak of my success in ShlinkedIn came when I was mentioned on the official ShlinkedIn Daily Digest. I like how all ShlinkedIn notification emails simply say they are from Charlie.

Tying it Back to Tech

I first heard about ShlinkedIn on the Tech Team Weekly Podcast. This is a team of three tech employees who work different roles (software engineer, tester, manager), so they discuss the news, talk about trends in the industry, and occasionally pivot to whatever they think is worth discussing.

A whistleblower has brought Facebook back into the public eye, along with social media as a whole. Is social media good? It really depends. LinkedIn is social media. Facebook is social media. Medium, as far as I can tell, is social media and I find it ironic that there are Medium articles encouraging us to quit all social media.

I have yet to meet someone who gets the same “dopamine addiction” from LinkedIn as they do from Facebook or Instagram, but I would love to see alternatives to major websites like Facebook spring up. Maybe some would simply cost money every month to use. Maybe some would be blatant ripoffs of Facebook before they changed the algorithm. In any case, I think you can have too much of a good thing. In the beginning, as far as I remember, Facebook was revolutionary simply because you could find people on it.

Now it owns the world, and at this rate it will become self-aware.

ShlinkedIn is still a small, relatively new parody website that has yet to make a non-sarcastic statement about business growth. It is gaining its footing as a community, with people who contribute, people who donate, and people who, hopefully with time, keep up its development effort.

On the other hand, Facebook and LinkedIn (we all know) are companies worth billions of dollars that prospective employees would do anything to work for. The “pure open source” world, as I would call it, is a little bit different. LinkedIn and Facebook have open source projects (React.js comes to mind), but their core products are not open source. If the next great social media company were “pure open source,” it could completely change the hiring process. Instead of software engineer candidates dreaming of studying so they could pass interviews and then work on the core product, they would simply work on the core product, have their feature branches merged, and get hired as a result.

There are many, many reasons why it might not be this simple. Open source can be a fairly complex topic, and it does not help that not everyone agrees on what it means. I just find it really interesting when I discover some project is open source.

Holtz’s email response to “what next?”

So much is in the works! In our discord we have a healthy stream of feature requests, and there are so many directions we can go. I’m working on adding fake corporations that users can create, jobs people can do, and more things you can spend “shlinkpoints” on. I’m also revamping Shlinkedin news, toying with making an app, etc. So things are busy for a side project!

I also want to expand things beyond just business satire. So I own a little universe of satirical domains, like shlubhouse.com, shwikipedia.com, shinstagram.com, etc. Stay tuned for the shlinternet.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about recently is how we make ShlinkedIn more sustainable for ourselves but not by messing with users dopamine circuits. Rather than monetize user’s attention, we decided to do something that no other social media platform (that I know of) has tried: just offer something users pay for!

So we rolled out Shlinkedin Platinum last week, which gives people some cool features, exclusive community, stickers, permanent honor etc, and I’m excited to see how that goes. I want our incentives to be aligned so that we aren’t constantly optimizing for engagement or whatever, and we keep it simple: if you like it you can choose to give us money! Or not. Whatever works :)

Closing Thoughts

E.B. White said that analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog…few people are interested, and the frog dies.

Why is this website funny? The precise second I over-analyze it, it could cease to be. As we speak, my bad jokes are lowering the value of ShlinkedIn’s good ones.

I think this is funny for the same reason The Onion is funny. It takes something real, it makes an obvious critique, and we get the message. My hope is that, over time, this website will slowly transition from being like The Onion to being like Nathan For You. It will blur the very line between the fictional and the real, to the point that it actually influences reality more than reality.

Writers will make their careers in ShlinkedIn. Young developers will find projects like this and learn the ins and outs of open source — by extension, they will learn about source control and software development in general. Charlie Holtz and his co-founder managed to do something that so many university professors, high school teachers, and coding bootcamps fail to achieve: They made something fun.

I will close with two YouTube links and leave you with that!

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