Just as social media platforms have helped set the practices, etiquettes, and philosophies behind online community management, there are times when the platforms are reshaped by the online movement they’ve helped create.
Over the last month, I’ve been watching and learning a lot from an online conversation that points to some of the changes that are already taking place on one of the most popular and useful business platforms: LinkedIn.
You read that right: The conversation began a month ago, and 243 comments later (and counting), it’s still going strong.
The topic was deceptively simple. Things got started when a participant on the excellent Social Media Today (SMT) discussion group put this question to members:
When someone you don’t know sends you a LinkedIn request using the default message, do you accept, reject, or email asking to know more?
The resulting discussion—smart, respectful, and varied—turned into a great snapshot of one of the big, burning issues in community management: How important is it to stick to fixed etiquette when the overall goal is to build our online networks and help others do the same?
‘Anyone I Should Know’
I was primed for this topic by a social media maven’s recent online declaration that he’d connect “with anyone I know, anyone I would like to know, and anyone I should know.” I’m pretty certain the original comment showed up Twitter. But with just a bit more caution to weed out spammers and inappropriate connections, a more universal, unconditional philosophy could as easily apply to LinkedIn.
Some group members did express a more traditional view of LinkedIn connections. “Why would anyone email a stranger—especially someone who didn’t bother to customize their connexion request—to ask why that person wants to connect?” asked one discussion participant. “Life is too short to waste time on members of a professional forum who don’t know how to act professionally.”
But much of the discussion pointed to a way of using LinkedIn that was not a part of the original plan. “I get a lot of requests from people I don’t know directly, but are obviously an extension of my network, and if it’s a generic request, I just see it as more casual,” said one participant.
Weak Connections in Action
“I LOVE THEM,” another participant agreed. “Just seeing their request brings joy to my heart.” As a self-employed practitioner, “LinkedIn gives me a wonderful feeling of belonging in a much larger world.” He added that 90% of his uninvited connection requests “are accepted immediately, and I have had very satisfying email exchanges with ‘strangers’ who showed up in my life in this unusual way.”
Several other participants said they write back in response to a generic invitation, ask the originator why they wanted to connect, and ignore or block contacts who don’t reply. That might be a time-consuming process, but for anyone who’s genuinely interested in building a professional community online, it strikes me as a good compromise—particularly because LinkedIn’s mobile app apparently makes it impossible to customize a contact request.
The reply can be templated and sent as quickly as the original default message—fair is fair. But as one discussion participant said, “you just never know. It’s the strength of weak connections in action.”
Is LinkedIn Listening?
The delicious irony here is that LinkedIn is providing the forum for a discussion that is blowing up one of the system’s most fundamental rules.
I’m pretty sure the first thing I ever learned about LinkedIn (long ago and far away, back when the world was new) was that you never reach out to strangers. They’ll resent it. It violates LinkedIn’s terms and conditions. Keep it up, and you’ll just be locked out.
Yet LinkedIn itself has a more nuanced view on the matter. In a forum discussion earlier this year, several users pointed out that LinkedIn’s own processes encourage users to risk the dreaded ‘IDK/I don’t know them’ response, and a LinkedIn moderator advised that “it’s worth risking them IDK’ing by clicking into their profile and sending an invite the ‘old fashioned’ way.”
I mentioned before that I’d learned a lot from the SMT discussion thread. That’s because, although I saw the contradiction between an archaic rule and a more open approach to online community management, I had mostly absorbed the restriction and played along. Until now, I’ve rarely tried to connect with anyone I didn’t already know, and I’ve often been too standoffish when I’ve heard from strangers.
That’s going to change now. But the bigger question—for many of us, I suspect—is whether LinkedIn really sees this spontaneous use of its platform as a bug or a feature. I hope they show some flexibility, and not only because I don’t want to be shut out.
Social media networks are all about sharing, collaborating, and reaching out, and LinkedIn will be that much better to the extent that it can adapt to that reality. The Social Media Today discussion pointed to the steps users can take to err on the side of inclusiveness, without opening the door to endless waves of spam.