Who are your LinkedIn connections?

On LinkedIn, you’re supposed to connect only to “trusted individuals.”

Not just people you like, or met at one meeting. Or you kind of know because they were at a party at your brother’s house. But, people you know well, and “trust.”

Funny thing is, nobody does this.

LinkedIn says you should connect with…

…those people you know and trust because these are the people you will seek advice from and request a recommendation about your/other’s quality of work. Because of this, the quality of your contacts is always more important than the quantity of contacts…Choose your connections wisely as there are certain questions you might only ask a connection because you know and trust that member with this information. Be sure you trust your connections with the information you make available to them.

Nobody follows these guidelines, and haven’t for as long as I’ve belonged to LinkedIn. The reality is that people use all kinds of different connection criteria, including:

  • nobody. (I wonder about profiles with no links; are they anti-social or what?)
  • only one person, their SO. (Sweet.)
  • anyone who’s nice
  • anyone who’s a good and/or decent colleague
  • anyone they ever worked with
  • anyone who breathes (and some brag about it)

The problem…

You receive a connection request from a coworker, friend, or boss. Great! Now you have to either reject or accept it.

Uh oh. Reject has a bunch o’ negative connotations. Not being liked. Not being thought of highly. Not being in your inner circle. Not being trusted.

Whereas accept has an… accepting connotation.

You’ve worked with Fred for two months, and you get along well. You might introduce him thusly: “This is Fred, a friend of mine from work.” But as you don’t know anything about his background, beliefs, life outside of the office, etc., how can you call him a true friend?

Maybe you can, maybe you can’t. Most of us, when pressed, would amend our statement and say that Fred is an “acquaintance.” Or maybe a “work friend.” There’s nothing wrong with the higher degree of specificity, but it is a quick demotion on the friendship scale.

“Friend” is used casually in our society, often without being given much thought. It’s like saying, “Good morning! How are you?” to someone you pass on the street. You really don’t want or expect a detailed response that explains how the other person is.

Similarly, do you trust Fred? You trust him to replace the printer toner cartridge correctly, not lie on his status reports, have a good sense of humor, and not be an outright jerk. Do you trust him with anything else? Most people would say they trust Fred, but “only so far.” Ding, another demotion.

Getting back to LinkedIn invitations. A rejected invitation will, at a bare minimum, miff the sender. If not cause them to set your Bozo Bit. Unfortunately, you have only two choices: Accept or reject.

Mapping a very complicated real-world relationship to a binary yes or no state is a ubiquitous flaw of online social networks. I might trust you with office secrets, but not with intimate details of my personal finances. You might be a friend in my Bible study group, but I wouldn’t go with you to a football game or a bar.

We’ve all had awkward moments when a friend from one setting runs into us in another setting. Uh oh, there’s nothing to talk about! Why? Because friendship and trust have context in the real world. But LinkedIn doesn’t represent this — you’re either in or out, accepted or rejected, trusted or not trusted.

You might have to work with this person daily; she might be your boss or your neighbor; or you’re hoping for a favor from them. To say, “Nah, I don’t trust you,” is a pretty tall order. It’s much easier to accept the request. Which is what most of us do. 

…is something everyone works around

As broken as is LinkedIn’s notion of “trusted contacts,” their system still moistly works, since almost everybody does follow the rules — just not LinkedIn’s rules.

When I scan a typical contact list, I know some will be trusted individuals, while others will just be office or career “friends.” Some contacts will be tight, others will be loose; some will be close, others will be random acquaintances. Most everyone does it, so the playing field is mostly level.

This also means your connections are a multi-level Rorschach test; not just because of your individual connections per se, but also because of the overall standards you apply. I’m OK with any criteria, except for contact whores who brag about how many links they have in their profile name. But, if someone links to, generally, their friends and colleagues; or to only very close buds; or to just their spouse, I can deal with it. And you can usually, but not always, tell from the contact list.

Having less-than-stellar contacts does present a couple of problems. Sometimes they don’t quickly forward LinkedIn Introductions. When they do, it’s sometimes with a lame intro. (“Here, this is for you.”) Beyond that, there isn’t much of a downside to linking to anyone you happen to know, as long as they aren’t social psychopaths or outright losers.

Just for grins, here’s what my LinkedIn connection count would be using different criteria.

My LinkedIn connections, today


If I did only people I trust

IMNSHO, “trust” means I have a firm belief in their reliability, integrity, truth, or ability. I know them well, I’ve seen them in multiple stressful circumstances, and they adhere to their principles (which are sterling) in adverse circumstances. I’d work with or for them in an instant, without knowing anything else about the job. Their word is their bond.

This is the standard LinkedIn wants me to use. If I did, I’d have only 26 connections.

If I did people I trust, and good recent coworkers

Now I’ll add excellent individuals with whom I’ve worked within the past five years. I might not trust them in all circumstances, but they impressed me as being pretty darn solid individuals. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend them for a job.

If I used this standard, I’d have 63 connections.

If I did people I trust, and all good coworkers

It’s one thing to have recently worked with someone. What if I haven’t worked with someone in a long, long time?

People who walked on water 25 years ago may have been the Real Deal back then, but now they’re evil. Or vice versa. Or, 15, 20, or 25 year old recollections might have become misty with age — maybe the individual hasn’t changed at all, but my memory has double or triple bit errors.

So now I’ll include folks I worked with long ago. They were, at the very least, great at the time. I’d be up to 109 connections.

People I trust, good coworkers, and good friends

My good friends might suck at work. Maybe they’re whiners, they don’t step up, or they don’t put their dirty dishes in the dishwasher. Maybe they hog all the good Post-it notes.

But I like them quite a bit, because in my social context, they’re swell.

If I linked only to people I trust, all good coworkers past & present, and all good friends, I’d have 153 connections.

Trust, good coworkers and friends, and reasonable acquaintances

Now I’ll add anyone with whom I’ve had a non-trivial interaction. Maybe we had a few worthwhile meetings, we did a little business, we sat through a few conference sessions and were of the same opinion, etc.

I’d be up to 237 connections.

Trust, good coworkers and friends, and any acquaintances

If we’ve met even just once and had a good interaction, you’re an acquaintance. 259 connections.

Anyone with a pulse

If I became a LinkedIn contact whore, I’m sure I could rack up over 50,000 connections.

Add to FacebookAdd to NewsvineAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to Ma.gnoliaAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Furl

10 thoughts on “Who are your LinkedIn connections?

  1. Nice post, and a really good point. I guess I am too much of a pushover to say “no” to anyone. But I have sent only a few invitations out.

    It would be nice if there was some way you could flag or group your contacts as “trusted”. But I suppose that would hurt people’s feelings, too.

    Maybe if there was a “recommended” checkbox, so you wouldn’t have to actually type any text. That might be a little more discreete than a checkbox for, “I like this person more than I like the rest of you bozos”.

    BTW the links to the social psychopath article is great.

    And The Onion is, oddly, becoming the only news source I know of that makes any sense anymore.

  2. Terrific post.

    It may sound passive aggressive, but I’ve see a third response, one beyond reject or accept. That is to simply ignore the invitation. The response of ‘it got lost in the mail’ or ‘it ended up in my spam folder’. I realize that this is a cop-out approach, but it is a way to get around the problem.

    I agree with your concept of ‘LinkedIn contact whore’. It’s not my preference. To me it’s similar to ‘bagging the ancestors’ when someone tells you that they can go back 15 generations – back to an emperor. I just don’t believe them, nor do I trust their ability to make sound judgments.

    I have a rule of thumb that you didn’t address. I’ve chosen one individual as my ‘linkedin barometer’. Someone I know who will tell it to me straight and not bullshit their response to anything I ask them. Someone who I respect and admire for the decisions and choices they have made in their life. When I think about inviting someone to be linkedin with me I MUST be willing, in theory, to introduce them to my ‘linkedin barometer’. I have to fell confident that the person would represent me well and would not embarrass me.

    You know my choice of a ‘linkedin barometer’. For this reason, I’m not linking up with my high school buddies, my college sweetheart, my genealogy friends, the people that I meet once at a conference, my next-door neighbor, and even some of my step-children. I’m only linkedIn with people I know will represent me in a positive fashion. The people listed above are invited to join my Facebook. And even there I have a ‘facebook barometer’.

  3. @Rob: I think any indication of a level of connectedness will be a problem. Every one of your connections will naturally want and expect the best designation.

    You introduced me to the term “social psychopath.” It was too bad that it was within the context of both of us working at a company run by them. But, I’m still glad you did.

    @Luci: You’re right about the passive-aggressive response! I’ve seen that too, but I forgot about it! Thank you for mentioning it!

    I’ve had that happen only a couple of times, but it was, in some ways, the oddest response of all. (Do you expect others to really believe you can’t read your home page? Or that LinkedIn quote lost unquote a connection request?)

    My $.02 on the notion of an external “barometer” or metric, is that it can easily become the projection of your requirements or standards onto another person. Your connections have got to ultimately be your choice. By leaving it to the hypothetical choice of another, you can easily wind up projecting how you think he/she would act. But, would the barometer really reject the request that you’re rejecting? If you know them really well, that setup might work. But, why not just simplify things and apply your own metrics?

    Ick, you use Facebook? Oh brother, don’t get me started, that’s something I won’t do. I’ll step away from the keyboard now.

  4. John

    Well, this comment is related and unrelated. I found out about your change in job status from the “Linked-in” update service, so I stopped over to see what was happening (and thank you for including me in one of the collections). That was about 4 days ago. And then today I was wondering how you were making out with all this, but I forgot where I stashed the “favorite” link (out of my 3500 “favorites”) (and exactly what is a favorite link anyway?) So, and this is the point of this whole comment – I did the Google search for “seek nuance”, and the search results page had the link to your blog as #1, top of the list. Think of all the effort people put in to making it to the #1 spot on a google hit list !

    Hope you’re handling all this change in the weather as calmly as it appears from 2800 miles away.

    Military-industrial complex still hanging in there here in Northern Virginia.

    Say hi to Sue.


  5. @Robert: Thanks for the Google pointer, that’s funny. Now if only a company sold an expensive product called “Seek Nuance,”, I could sell the domain and make a bazillion bucks!

    What are you going to do if death machines go out of style? 🙂

  6. Great post – so glad you wrote this. I’ve taken the passive aggressive “ignore” route with quite a few people. Almost entirely people I had no recollection of (I assume they were recruiters I talked to once) and in one case someone I worked with for over a year who I thought was a dreadful person and a dreadful coworker.

    Looking over my list of connections, I see quite a few people who I couldn’t necessarily recommend because I either have never worked with them, or they are a bit sketchy in one way or another.

  7. Wow! I guess I wouldn’t be so gauche as to wonder aloud which cutoff I would make. That was a really fascinating and thoughtful post. I’m pleased to see that an already excellent writer can get even better. Cheers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.