It’s about connecting, not collecting

accept ignore

The debate about this decision is heating up once again.

In the past week, some new logs have been thrown on the fire of a longstanding debate: should LinkedIn users seek to connect with EVERYONE, or should they be more selective? The latest brouhaha started with a piece by well-respected personal-branding expert Dan Schwabel, “Why I Accept All LinkedIn Contact Requests.” Schwabel gave five reasons for recommending an “all aboard” approach, while conceding that “[t]here’s always a lot of criticism around this piece of advice.”

Well, there was more criticism to follow in the comments to Schwabel’s post. One example was this from Robby Slaughter: 

Let’s assume everyone used Mr. Schawbel’s approach to LinkedIn. If that were the case, it would cease to be a social network. It would become a list. We already have that list. It’s called the phone books. If a strategy depends on other people not adopting that same strategy in the long run, it’s an inadvisable strategy.

The argument didn’t end there. As Schwabel’s critics made their voices heard, other bloggers and commenters joined the conversation to defend his opinion. One notable voice was Doug Karr, who said this:

Folks… what the heck is the use of a social network that spans cities, states, countries, time zones and continents if you’re not using it? You really believe the best use of this incredible resource is simply to reproduce your offline network online?

Why don’t you just go pull out your old rolodex and call your high school buddies up to play Dungeons and Dragons?

Despite the fact I hate Dungeons & Dragons, Karr does make one good central argument: there are few absolutes in social media. The minute you say “only connect with those you know offline,” you’ll find an exception to the rule–just as you would if you said “you should connect with everyone.” However, I don’t think the issue is connecting with people you truly know offline vs only knowing online. You can build trust with those in the latter category. It’s more an issue of whether you seek to connect with only those you know–online or off–or if you include those you don’t know. And by those terms, my strong opinion is that there are a few good reasons to err on the side of being more selective when it comes to making connections on LinkedIn. Why?

1. Doing so is consistent with LinkedIn’s user agreement. This is perhaps the best argument against seeking to connect with a broad audience. As I mentioned in a post last week, connecting with those you don’t know can result in your LinkedIn account being restricted. This only affects the connections you seek to make of course, so how about your approach when deciding whether to accept connection requests? Read on.

2. Dunbar’s number affects all of us. I’ve written before about Dunbar’s number which posits that since time is finite, we can only maintain so many relationships before the quality of each of those individual relationships begins to suffer. In other words, in trying to reach everyone, you’re going to be much less available to anyone. My belief is that less is more, and–as I’ve also written before–this is even more true in today’s communication environment.

3. Being selective in making connection requests VASTLY improves your ability to get real value out of your network. One of my favorite things about LinkedIn is its ability to expose the interconnections within your network. By revealing who is connected to whom, I can understand the best opportunities to make new connections, when appropriate. If my first degree connections are people known to me, that is, I can leverage that relationship to access people I don’t yet know who may be a resource to me or I a resource to them. If my first degree connections are more tenuous, however, I may not get very far. (Here’s one example that shows the power of this approach, involving advanced search.)  While going right to the source–a new connection–may seem more efficient, it actually just muddies the water and gives the impression of mutual trust where none exists.

4. Doing so limits your exposure to spam/bots/etc. This has been mentioned by others, but it’s worth repeating. As Karr points out in his post, you can always delete people after you’ve connected with them should they prove to be spammers (or not people at all). However, this seems backwards to me. I’d prefer to use more discretion upfront and avoid any problems–especially given that some of the information you’re giving away on LinkedIn may be sensitive.

Now, everyone’s needs are a little different, and I know people who take a more expansive view on connections who nevertheless use LinkedIn effectively. Still, my advice remains the same: LinkedIn is about connecting with people, not simply a means for collecting people. Quality of connections, that is, beats quantity.
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