LinkedIn And The Mutable Rules Of Social Networking

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What is a social network? In general terms, Facebook is a network of friends and family. Twitter is a network of people/things you find interesting. And LinkedIn is a network of colleagues – to cover off a few of the big ones. (I’m still trying to figure out a neat description for Google+ — feel free to add yours in the comments.) But those neat descriptions are simplifications of more complex and changeable realities.

The rules of social networking are mutable. Necessarily so. As the services shift and evolve – to encourage more people to join and do more interacting – your individual use has to change to keep up (or drop off entirely as you abandon the service). And as the size of your network grows it can also demand new rules of interaction that work with a larger audience.

Plus, the more you use a social network, the more it can change you – the more personal info you share on Facebook, say, the more normal sharing that info becomes, maybe encouraging you to share even more. Even if you start out with hard and fast rules a careless click or two can soon reconfigure all that.

With all that in mind I’m curious to know how people approach LinkedIn. What are your rules for connecting with people on LinkedIn? And how have they changed?

I ask because I feel I’m at a juncture where my current rules need updating. When I started using LinkedIn (in 2008) the service put a lot of emphasis on only connecting with people you had indubitably ‘done business with’. Which made it pretty straightforward to decide when to click ‘accept’ and when to pass by on the other side. In any case, the vast majority of LinkedIn requests came from direct or indirect workmates.

But in recent years – and even more so since joining TechCrunch – I’ve been getting increasing numbers of LinkedIn requests from people I haven’t worked with, even tangentially. Sometimes these people are in a similar line of work or in the same industry. And sometimes requests appear entirely random – with no apparent connection at all — and not all look like mistakes/spam. (Being a journalist complicates the picture, of course, since it’s a line of work that necessitates getting in contact with people you don’t know yet.)

Put simply: The old rules of LinkedIn interaction aren’t working anymore.

I must admit to not being a particularly involved user of LinkedIn. Twitter has been my network of choice for years. But taking a fresh look now, LinkedIn looks to have evolved from being a service that links you with the people you work with right now, to one that’s about building networks of people you might work with in future and/or who might be able to facilitate your career in some way.

Which makes perfect sense – that’s what traditional business networking is all about — but it also means using the service requires a lot more thought than it used to, deciding who it makes sense to connect with and who to avoid, on a case by case basis. (Interestingly LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner approached the question of what LinkedIn is from the other way round, when he described it as a service for connecting talent to companies.)

LinkedIn has got a whole lot bigger since I joined – membership has climbed from 32 million to 175 million+ since January 2009. Over the years it’s also incorporated Facebook and Twitter style features such as status updates and Likes, and most recently the ability to follow key influencers – so again, it’s a whole lot more involved than it used to be.

Another way LinkedIn appears to be trying to steer/encourage users to broaden their networks is by polarising the options for responding to connection requests – to either ‘accept’ or ‘report spam’ (though procrastinators can still just ignore the request). 

In an effort to get a sense of how people are using LinkedIn these days, I queried my Twitter followers to ask what their rules for accepting LinkedIn connection requests are – asking whether they A) accept every request they get; B) only accept requests from people they know personally/can vouch for their work; or C) accept requests on a case-by-case basis.

While the responses spanned the range from “I only accept if I have met or spoken to the person” to “Mostly a). Why not?” – most people said they accept requests on a case-by-case basis – presumably connecting with people they haven’t personally worked with where they feel the link might be relevant/useful to them.

But almost as many people said they only accept requests from people they know personally/can vouch for — suggesting a lot of people are still treating LinkedIn as a strictly limited network of current colleagues.

While interesting, this was only a snap poll so I’m keen to hear more views on how people are using LinkedIn — tell me your rules of interaction in the comments.

Judging from this small sample, LinkedIn use appears to be transitioning from a network of ‘known knowns’, to a broader network of ‘unknown knowns’. (And the user uncertainly during this state of flux explains this additional response that was tweeted back to me: “D) only log in every six months, take one look at the list of total strangers wanting to connect, and run back to Facebook.”)

From LinkedIn’s point of view getting more people connecting is essential to continue growing its user-base and therefore its business. Which explains its shift in emphasis from a tight circle of current colleagues to a network of virtual strangers with the potential to further each other’s careers.

But when it comes to getting a large swathe of its user base to get over their aversion to connecting with total strangers — well, there’s clearly some work to be done there.

[Image: vladeb]