Friday, June 09, 2006

Kicking Ass and Faking Names

Misunderstandings, the more I think about it, really make the world go ‘round. Whether it’s the classic SNL Emily Litella routines about “presidential erections” and the like, or your typical Middle East religious riot, misunderstanding can always be counted on to add some color to life’s drab landscape. My father, a criminal attorney of some notoriety, is apt to describe a client as having been the victim of “a small misunderstanding about 70 kilos of cocaine”. Who could argue with that?

Easily among the most misunderstood of concepts is networking, a topic which, if it’s of scant interest to some of you, it might well be because of how it’s been misconstrued. Keith Ferrazzi writes in his modern classic Never Eat Alone about those unfortunate “networkers” who return from a conference bragging about all the “contacts” they’ve made – in reality, nothing more than a stack of business cards of people they met in passing. As Keith explains, these aren’t contacts, but merely a list of people you can now cold-call.

While the Internet has been widely touted for redefining the way we do things, I find it’s equally effective at allowing us to repeat old mistakes. Look on any social networking site, and you’ll find people who shamelessly amass names – call them contacts, friends, connections – until you wonder if it’s possible they’ve even met a tenth of those people. The only networking site I find professionally useful, LinkedIn, expressly discourages this type of aggrandizement, and that is why it’s (for the most part) effective. People only feel comfortable making referrals for, or requesting introduction through, people they trust. A revolutionary concept, no?

Of course, it was only a matter of time until the business card collectors invaded LinkedIn as well. LinkedIn displays the number of connections each user has, and to an extent it’s a good barometer of a person’s commitment to getting the most out of the service. Someone with one connection probably joined at the behest of a friend, forgot about it, and hasn’t gotten much value from it since. To be fair, in some professions and geographic areas, it’s not terribly useful. On the other hand, 25,000 connections suggests a separate form of indifference to the site’s goals. I get invitations to connect from these people all the time.

It’s funny when a message from someone you’ve never met begins “Since you’re a person I trust…” I end up accepting these invitations, because I’m a nice guy and I’ve learned the hard way more than once that I can’t afford to brush anyone off. But I seriously question the value of this practice when I notice that I’m connected to someone through someone I’d feel totally uncomfortable asking for an introduction. Not surprisingly, these trusted "colleagues" I’ve never met never seem to contact me again.

Perhaps to discourage blatant connection-padding, LinkedIn no longer displays the number of a user’s connections when it tops 500 – in that case there is only an icon that reads “500 +”. When I see that icon on the profile of someone I've never heard of who's just requested me, I have to wonder how many of their other "connections" are in the same boat. Frankly, I think it’s a perfect response. The connection-mongers, however, are not happy, and they’ve banded together to do something about it – namely, establishing their own wiki. Read their stirring manifesto:

Why MyLink500? LinkedIn no longer displays the number of connections for top networkers. Anyone with over 500 connections carries a notation only of "500+" connections, whether they have 501, 5,000, or 25,000 connections. This policy is an insult to top networkers who take pride in the care and development of their networks and evangelism of LinkedIn. This page is dedicated to these proud networkers.

Funny – I consider diluting the value of LinkedIn by making a mockery of its guidelines to be sort of insulting itself. I’ve never been that great at mathematical reasoning, so I’ll pose the question to you all: is an insult of an insult a compliment?

(Ironically, this nonsense is hosted by PBwiki, the co-creation of my good friend Ramit Sethi. It was Ramit who, in May of 2005, turned me on to Never Eat Alone. Thanks again, pal!)


Blogger Chris said...

My approach has been to studiously ignore the invitations from the "master networkers."

I totally agree--the value of a connection lies solely with its ability to reflect a real relationship--one which doesn't depend on accepting a LinkedIn invite.

11:47 AM  
Anonymous Melinda said...

Wholeheartedly agree. I also ignore these requests. Recently, employees of my previous employer (a large internet company) have taken to asking to be connected. I'm somewhat confused. Why would I pass on a connection request from someone I've never met to someone I've never met? Seems to dilute the value, as you so eloquently put it.

Meanwhile, I also never ask to be connected to anyone I wouldn't call up and ask for a recommendation or important connection from.

2:00 PM  

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