LinkedIn: The network effect revisited

By C.G. Lynch, CIO.com |  Career, LinkedIn, Social Networking

As people make "connections" and build their contacts list on LinkedIn, the popular social network for business professionals, some users have thought long and hard about the quality of their connections versus the number of connections they acquire. According to the service's power-users and social media analysts, establishing the best criteria for making a connection could, over the long term, determine how much value you get from LinkedIn.

According to Jonathan Yarmis, a research director at AMR Research, a LinkedIn user might (consciously or subconsciously) decide to fully apply Metcalfe's Law - the "network effect," whose premise is that the value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of users of the system. This is especially tempting for users on LinkedIn since it doesn't contain personal information of the same intimacy as, say, Facebook.

According to experts, Metcalfe's Law of the network effect should not necessarily be employed by users in determining how many users to connect with on a service like LinkedIn. Image source: Wikipedia

"I accept just about everyone on LinkedIn who I don't otherwise view as a spammer because that increases my network breadth," Yarmis says. "Since I'm not sharing a lot of information, there's no downside to the sharing. My filter here is: 'Might I ever want to know where you are? Can you add any value to me?'"

But in general, for today's social networks, Yarmis says Metcalfe's Law, which was designed for the Ethernet and not the Web, doesn't work very effectively for users. He says that's especially true on Facebook, where the information is more personal than LinkedIn.

Justin Smith, who runs the Inside Facebook blog, echoes that sentiment. He notes that Metcalfe's Law "may not literally apply to the question of 'adding connections' on social networks because the act of establishing a connection to another user does not open an otherwise-closed communication channel; it merely loosens the privacy restrictions of the channel that exists between those two people."
Facebook's privacy settings, he adds, make is possible for users to "friend" someone but share less information.

"Sites like Facebook enable users to increase the quality of connections between users by setting granular privacy restrictions on each friend," he says. "This maximizes the value of each connection by allowing more sharing with trusted connections and less sharing with untrusted connections."

But on LinkedIn, the contacts provide mostly professional information, thus making a "connection" less risky - if not beneficial.

How far can you take this?

Bill Austin, an Internet marketing expert, has nearly 8,000 connections on LinkedIn. He says the ways people connect on LinkedIn can be identified in a few different ways.

First, he says there are those who rely purely on the network effect (more is better), connecting with anyone and everyone.

Others, he says, want to keep their network very limited by insisting they know the person well, either professionally or personally.

"They all went to the same university or hung out in a coffee shop and do business with each other," Austin says. "They only connect with people they know, like or do business with."

Then there are the hybrid users, who don't need to know the contact personally, but require that a request to make a connection isn't what Austin calls "canned" - in other words, it doesn't look like spam. Those users, Austin says, are also more likely to hit the dreaded "I don't know this person" button when responding to a request to connect with another LinkedIn user. That action can contribute to a user's account being terminated if LinkedIn decides that person is a spammer.

Austin recommends making connections liberally, as long as it doesn't appear the person trying to connect with you is a spammer. He discourages using the "I don't know" button, as you actually know more people than you think you do.

For instance, if you made a presentation to fifty people, and one of those people asked to connect with you on LinkedIn, it wouldn't be very nice to lower their value on LinkedIn by saying you "don't know them.

According to Yarmis, it ultimately depends on the network (and the people in it) in deciding who to connect with, noting, "the value of a network is dependent on the interaction of the right quality of people, the right quantity of people and the right quantity of interaction."

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