A few days back I mentioned Slacker Manager in connection with LinkedIn and social networking websites that seem to be gaining a lot of exposure. As a new adopter of the service, I wasn't quite convinced that people joining networks would do so for the social cachet of being the most networked person. However, some of my recent experiences make me think otherwise.
I joined LinkedIn a few days back and tried inviting and connecting with various good people. Most of them have graciously agreed to connect with me. This was very nice because when I log in, I get the warm fuzzies when I see that my network is growing. I wish I could have been satisfied with that and went back to my routine. But no, I had to go and put the network to test. So I decided to send mail to a few persons I connected on LinkedIn about what my company is about, what our dreams are and suggested we should spend some time figuring how we can best put these connections to use. Talk about being naive! Most of them backed off claiming they are too busy and do not have the time.
Now this really got my goat. I started thinking about networks in general and these so-called networking websites in particular. I understand that no one should have the right to demand time or favors from one's network. But then again, what exactly are the obligations of my network to me? If there are no obligations, then why should we connect at all? Why should we go through the whole charade? Is it only to show that I have 250 connections in LinkedIn?
Does that make me cool?
I get the point that LinkedIn can work only if I invite freinds and trusted contacts and they in turn do the same. But then, it will take a long time for netowrks to clump together and really start adding value!
This becomes especially relevant when I invite connections from total strangers in order to make it faster and they oblige me. By connecting with total strangers I am saying in effect "I am interested in building bridges with anyone out there; I might not have the expertise or the time, but if you ask me something, I will do my best to help you in some small way. If I cannot be of help to you, I might know someone who can help you". if I am not prepared to honor this covenant, I should not invite connections from strangers at all!
If my network should have only friends and business partners to be effective, then there is no need for websites like LinkedIn. On the other hand, if websites like LinkedIn are to exist, then they should make it easier for strangers to meet, dialogue and figure out if they should connect. This means the job of LinkedIn does not stop at attracting and policing its users, but also in actively encouraging users to make connections. I believe that the website that can figure out how to enable networking without infringing on personal freedom is going to be the winner in networking space. Is LinkedIn doing this? I don't know. It certainly hasn't for me till now!
Update: Here is more grist to the mill.
NY Times has an article on how networking sites like Friendster are not cutting it anymore. (sub required)
Mr. Pincus, the investor, drew an analogy between the rollout of social networking sites and television, where a few must-see new shows emerge each fall. "Friendster had their season, they were the hot new kid on the block that everyone wanted to check out, but you need to build long-time utility for people to stay there."
Update 2 (5th Feb): A relook at the value of networking websites.