I recently accepted a connection request and added my 3,000th contact on LinkedIn. I’d like to use this notable occasion to describe how I’ve completely failed to derive any real value from LinkedIn over the past few years.
I should start by acknowledging that the fault is largely mine. I began using LinkedIn with the best of intentions and the finest of habits. I would only accept connections from people I had previously encountered (online or in person). I would acknowledge each new connection with a brief note of thanks for the addition. I would curate my network carefully, so that it would never become so large or unwieldy that it would lose its value.
Well, that hasn’t worked out at all. Somewhere along the way, I began to feel guilty for turning down connection requests from people who were complete strangers, but who were clearly involved in the legal industry and were reaching out in good faith. What would I say to someone I met at a conference who greeted me with, “Yeah, I tried to connect with you on LinkedIn last year, but you ignored me”?
So I began to look at the applicant’s background. If they were involved in the legal industry directly, I accepted their request even if I’d never met them. Then I began to accept requests from people who were affiliated with or adjacent to the law. And now I turn down requests only from people who have absolutely nothing to do with any aspect of my work (which still happens at least once a week). And this is how I ended up with 3,000 contacts.
If I were to scan 100 of those contacts at random, I’m pretty sure I would have no idea who 50% of them are. About 30% would fall into the category of, “Oh, yeah, your name is familiar.” And maybe 20% would be people I’ve met online or in person. I’m pretty sure that’s not how this is supposed to work.
What complicates matters further is that a number of my familiar contacts are people I met or worked with 10 or 15 years ago, who have long since left the legal industry and are now involved in fields that are completely tangential to my own. There’d be no reason for us to connect today, either on LinkedIn or in the real world — yet there we are, still maintaining our ghost connections online.
The size of my network, and my failure to curate it well, means I’ve lost one of the principal benefits of LinkedIn: authenticating people. It used to be that if I received an email or phone inquiry from someone I’ve never heard of, I would drop their name into LinkedIn and see if any of my contacts were also connected to them. The more trusted contacts we had in common, the better I felt about dealing with them.
But with 3,000 contacts, more than half of them essentially strangers, that benefit is gone. I might be connected to Person X through 80 people, but if 70 of those 80 are names drawn out of a hat, what good does that do me? Worse, what if my truly trusted contacts have the same bad LinkedIn habits that I do? If they’re connected to 1,000 randoms, then I can’t rely on their good name alone to be an authenticity checker.
So as an actual network of professionals with common interests, LinkedIn doesn’t have much use to me. As a promotional tool, even less: My website and Twitter feed tell you much more about me than LinkedIn does. And frankly, I expect most people to have a robust online presence of their own apart from LinkedIn. In other words, if the only place I can find your profile online is at LinkedIn, I’m going to be suspicious of your bona fides. (I recognize that people in government and similar workspaces can be an exception to this rule.)
So what value does LinkedIn provide to me now? Well, the main benefit of having 3,000 contacts is that LinkedIn has become a great content distribution tool. I circulate every new Law21 post on my professional Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook pages. By far the most detailed and thoughtful responses, as well as a significant chunk of traffic, come from LinkedIn, even though I have almost five times as many Twitter followers as LinkedIn contacts. I should probably take advantage of this by posting more content and starting more conversations on LinkedIn.
But although I shoulder most of the blame for my LinkedIn inadequacies, the platform does bear some responsibility. LinkedIn’s number-one objective, as far as I can tell, is to get me to add more contacts. It never stops offering me more people to connect with, it always asks me to upload my own contacts database to get more invitations, etc. LinkedIn is like the person who’s throwing the world’s biggest party and wants everyone to be there, even though neither he nor his guests could tell you what the point of the party is.
I do understand the theory of network effects. But if there were ever a counter-example to be made of this theory, LinkedIn might be it. My network has grown past the point of diminishing returns; every new connection actually makes the site less useful to me as a community of shared interests and an authenticator of potential new contacts. The only upside of future growth is to expand my distribution channel, and I have other platforms explicitly designed for that purpose.
So that’s the story of LinkedIn’s decline and fall as a useful business tool for me. Like I say, mostly it’s because of choices that I made, but I don’t see how I could have made different ones without feeling bad every time I used the site. Really, I just think this platform and I have different goals. I don’t need to know everyone, but LinkedIn evidently believes that I do. If my LinkedIn account were wiped tomorrow, I doubt I’d miss it all that much. I can’t say the same for my Twitter or Facebook accounts.
But that’s just me. I’m sure many readers have made much better use of LinkedIn than I have, and can offer good advice for avoiding my errors. If so, please share in the comments below.