A friend of mine, Surya Yalamanchili, recently took a job as director of marketing for LinkedIn. His moving into that position got me to thinking about the role that social networking site plays in the "Web 2.0" universe and the reasons people get involved with the site.
As you know, I am am a proponent of social networks and the way they can transform our lives. I also think they introduce a variety of new strains and that you should not enter them lightly; as well, you should have a strategy about how to handle connections and try to remain consistent with that strategy.
All these issues prompted me to write after I read Steve Cody's recent piece on LinkedIn over on his RepMan blog about the headache of trying to manage LinkedIn. Steve is one of the co-founders of Peppercom, a public relations company who recently graciously hosted me for a day at their offices in New York City. He writes about some of the challenges of finding use out of LinkedIn from an executive-level standpoint.
What Steve describes is the question these networks pose, especially since they encourage their value through connection. What often happens is a form of "friend bombing," as I've written about before. Trying to find the line of who to include as a friend and who not to is tough, and the standards are different.
While this is only anecdotal, I thought it might help tease through my own thinking on an issue to do an audit of my own LinkedIn connections. After all, while Steve Cody only has 63 connections on LinkedIn, I have 163. It's a far cry from a few people I know who have 500+, but it's still a fairly large number, so it got me thinking of whether I could be accused of using this site to try and scale myself up through quantity of connections, a process which I am not fond of to be honest, or whether these links are qualitatively strong. Like most people, i have made a few invitations along the way, and accepted them as they came in, often with little thought about what my network says about me.
I found that the most people I am LinkedIn with are academic contacts, of which I have 38. These include former professors at MIT and Western Kentucky University, as well as academics I have met through their work or through academic conferences or non-academics who I have worked with on an academic project (i.e. my thesis advisors, who don't work in academia but were interested in soap operas). Only a couple of these folks I haven't worked with directly, and almost all of them are close contacts.
The second biggest group of people I am LinkedIn with are former classmates, of whom there are 31. Again, I know all of these people well. From there, the biggest group of LinkedIn contacts I have are current members of partner companies at the Convergence Culture Consortium, of which there are 26. These folks range from people I work with closely to folks who I have never met in person and have only shared e-mails with. I am also "LinkedIn" with 16 former members of companies at the Consortium. I admit that one way I use LinkedIn is to keep up with folks who subscribed to our C3 newsletter who end up leaving the company. I have found that one difficulty in maintaining professional connections is the number of people who use their company e-mail and who become impossible to find once they leave their employer to stay connected with, save through sites like LinkedIn.
Otherwise, I have 14 connections from my other life as a professional journalist, 3 contacts who are family and friends (a couple of cousins and my wife, who has also been a co-worker and classmate), and 22 other professional connections, ranging from folks I have done freelance work with to interesting people I have met through my work at C3 and at conferences.
The most tenuous group among my LinkedIn friends is the 13 friends I have who I know primarily through the blogosphere, either through commenting on my posts here or linking to one another's blogs. I have usually accepted these LinkedIn requests, or even made them, through a common interest in the same professional topics and the fact that we travel in the same virtual circles, but the connections indeed range from people I have conversed with on a regular basis to folks I only know from a couple of interactions.
My own use of LinkedIn, then, is primarily to stay connected to folks I know well, as well as keep up with professional connections as a way to avoid losing people through constant e-mail changes. But my use of LinkedIn has led to plenty of awkward exchanges as well, including turning down a few requests along the way from people who I had never had contact with prior to a LinkedIn invitation. That is an absolute no for me, as I see LinkedIn as a site to maintain connections I already have rather than as a site to meet new people.
I have had a couple of awkward exchanges on my end along the way, including getting a message from a professor I thought I knew well entitled "Linked Out," who was angered not particularly at getting a request from me but rather that I didn't write a specifically tailored message to him and just used the standard LinkedIn invitation. In another instance, I reached out to a contact in the soap opera world who I had talked with on multiple occasions and wanted to stay in contact with, but he sent me a message explaining that, since he had not worked with me directly, he did not want to "link in."
I've also generated a few professional recommendations along the way through the site, although I'm not sure how those serve me. Whether to include them or not on resumes is a questions very much up-in-the-air at the moment, as they are a new way to get your work recommended and are publicly visible in a helpful way, yet they are also obviously self-selected, since you approve people's comments about your work.
The fact that this site is a tool used by a variety of people and for a variety of reasons leads to different standards of usage, which I consider a positive thing, but it does create new layers of questions of social and professional courtesy. I've written before about questions of etiquette raised by social networks in relation to Facebook and MySpace.
For C3 readers out there, any thoughts about how you use LinkedIn and the value the site provides, vis-a-vis the time and energy maintaining your network requires?