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Like many journalists, I like to think that I am not just in the journalism business, but that I am also in the connecting business — helping various people find and connect with one another. These people can range from reporters looking for additional sources after they interview me, to students looking to be introduced to editors in certain news outlets, to random requests over the transom.
Connecting people, however, is a dicey game. Every time you connect a requester and a requestee (are these real words?), you are putting your own reputation on the line. If the requester asks to be connected to a certain kind of requestee and the person you connect him or her to isn’t appropriate, you have wasted the requester’s time. Similarly, for each connection you try to make of a requestee, you have to be sure it’s a worthwhile connection and that the requestee won’t end up irritated with you for sending along someone less than professional.
So why take that risk every day, as I do? There’s something nice about making the right connections. Besides, I have come to look upon it as part of of my job.
I used to rely exlusively on e-mail to make these connections, but for more than a year now, I have been depending on a free social networking Web site called LinkedIn.com. Social networking sites, such as a MySpace, Friendster, etc., have a less-than-stellar reputation these days, so describing LinkedIn as “MySpace for professionals” does not make it sound appealing — but that description is appropriate (I thought of calling it “MySpace for adults,” but that makes it sound like something else altogether). Social networking does have its uses (see my November 2005 column on this subject) and I think LinkedIn is the most useful of the lot when it comes to making professional connections.
You first create a free account, then fill out a profile of yourself and then explore the “find people” space to see which of your contacts is already in LinkedIn. Then you can ask them to connect with you. Once they do, they become your “first-degree” connections and their connections become part of your network, as “second-degree” connections.
The connections of those second-degree folks become your “third-degree connections.” All of this is done through the system. My math’s no good, but it adds up fast. As of this writing, I have 317 direct connections; 43,000 second-degree connections and 1.4 million-plus connections in my network. I can search my network and contact anyone on it, but the reason the system works is that I can only connect with my direct connections directly. Everyone else has to be connected through the folks I know. They hear only from people they already know directly. So it’s basically friends — or acquaintances — making the initial connection.
Here’s an example of how I use it. A couple of months ago, a Japanese journalist came to interview me for a story about the American media. At the end of the interview, she asked me if I knew a certain well-known, veteran journalist. I said that I had met him a couple of times, but didn’t have his direct e-mail. So I looked in my LinkedIn network to see if someone in my direct contacts knew this person. Sure enough, someone did. With the Japanese journalist shoulder-surfing, I wrote a note to my contact, asking him to pass on the request for an interview via the LinkedIn system. I told my interviewer that this process could take a while and that it may not work at all. Turns out by the time she returned to her hotel, my contact had forwarded my request and the veteran journalist had written back a nice note I then passed on to her: “Sree… just tell her to contact me at [ ___ ]. If I can spend any time with her, I will. I should warn you though that I’m traveling a lot this month and may be hard to pin down. Let’s try, though.”
Several important things about this example:
- That veteran journalist happened to have a LinkedIn account.
- If he hadn’t had an account, I would have looked in my network for
someone else who works at the same company and try to get a contact
- The forwarding system ensures that someone like him can only be contacted by someone he already knows (and who made the judgment call about whether to forward my note or not).
LinkedIn is particularly useful when you are looking for a job. Knowing someone who works in the same division of a company you are interested in can help you get background information or get your resume to the right person. Nowadays, when someone asks me for contacts at a media outlet, I tell them to join LinkedIn, connect with me there and search my contacts. They use the system to send my contacts a message via me. I then judiciously decide whether to forward the message or not. I have declined to forward messages in some cases when the contact would not be appropriate. In the old days (i.e., last year), I would have just c.c.-ed my contact and the job seeker. I still do that, on occasion, with very good friends, but this way is better so that the contact can decide whether he/she wants to respond, without the job seeker automatically getting hold of his or her e-mail address.
I asked several LinkedIn users to share their thoughts, and I am reproducing some here. (Because many of these comments are in some ways employment-related, I’m keeping them anonymous to protect the identities of the folks who responded to my queries.):
- I use it all the time and think every journalist can find good contacts there. It is also less rude than just e-mailing someone you don’t know directly.
- I use my profile page with all my work experience listed instead of creating my own Web site and online resume.
- I don’t know about the New York “market,” but it’s really taken hold
here in Silicon Valley. When someone requests help or tells me about
looking for a job, my first comment is “Get on LinkedIn if you’re not.”
- I hire all my new freelancers this way.
- What I’d like is the ability to do multiple profiles/pages. For example, my day job is as a tech writer, but I am also a media person and an activist. I’d like to be able to separate those, yet not try to have three accounts.
- I was first getting contacted by people I wasn’t interested in, but lately the connections have been very useful.
- We all know social networking trends [tend toward] younger [audiences,] but since I’ve joined LinkedIn personally, I really see the divide now. After I explained how the more friends you have, the more it helps you, one [person] said to me last night, “I can see how it would be useful, but if I sent that to my friends, they wouldn’t know what to do with it.”
- It’s pretty good. It’s very useful for going beyond corporate directories. Anybody who works in the corporate world should have it — definitely. Let’s see, I usually link in about 2-3 times per week and it really helps in networking.
- Totally useless. I get inundated with the equivalent of spam from headhunters who want to network with me. As far as my friends go, they usually send me e-mails directly when they need help. I’ve found that this is more of an “ego” tool for techies who want to make it look like they know a lot of people.
- Was intrigued by the idea … but found the system difficult to use… I’d periodically get an alert that someone had found a connection to me … but, to look up details of who it is, I need to enter my user name and password which did not work; retrieving password also was difficult … The idea is certainly powerful … but execution is poor.
- My new boss at [ ___ ] got his job here by networking on LinkedIn. Our CTO is on LinkedIn and my boss “cold-called” him on LinkedIn. I haven’t used it enough to comment on it. However, knowing that my boss checks it regularly, I would hesitate to put a resume on it.
- Perhaps you could devote part of a column on how to manage such accounts. I was invited to join the network of a friend, and did so. Now I’m getting invitations to contact networks from people I don’t know inviting me to connect. Typical invitation reads: “I’ll recommend you to the people I know, if you’ll do the same for me; and I’ll pass on requests to you from people I trust. Please do the same.” My problem is I don’t know these people and they don’t know me. On what basis do I vouch for them — or they for me? At the same time, if I came to know them, they might indeed become people I trust and whom I’d be happy to vouch for. I don’t want to offend them by declining their invitations (especially since, if I decline, they will not be allowed to invite me again). So, how do people handle this kind of situation?
As you can see, especially from the last comment, there is confusion about how this kind of service works. As with any new-ish concept, it might be hard to grasp till you try it for a while. Yes, you might get contacted by people you don’t really know. But you can easily decline those invitations to be added to their networks. I get, perhaps, two requests a month from people trying to randomly generate more connections. I just ignore those folks.
Here’s a more detailed response from someone who was once a LinkedIn skeptic and now calls herself a “LinkedIn poster girl”:
I joined LinkedIn when I entered business school. I received a number of invitations from classmates, but never paid much attention because the invites were from casual acquaintances. When a friend invited me, I reluctantly joined, and added the 10 other requests as links and thought that was the end of that.
A year later, just prior to graduation, I received a note from the CEO of [ ___ ] asking whether I would like to consider a job there. It was a bit of a surprise, and given my suspicion of the legitimacy of LinkedIn and the timing (I was in Basel at the time, negotiating my employment with a major pharmaceutical company), I wasn’t sure whether it was worth my time.
Out of curiosity I did answer him, and met with him the following week, and as you can see from my business card, I did end up going to [ ___ ]. I became a believer in LinkedIn and promptly added everyone in my Rolodex, and got nearly two dozen other job offers until I put a note on my profile saying that I am NOT looking to leave my company.
So that’s my experience… I’ve definitely become the LinkedIn poster girl. I recommend it to everyone, but I think it works for technology-based fields much better than others.
She’s right: people who work in tech use LinkedIn a lot more than others, including journalists. But I believe that as media professionals learn to use the system, it can work well for them, too. Is it perfect? Of course not. But I think that it’s something we should all be familiar with, at least.
You can see my public profile here and sign up for a free account off that page or by just going to LinkedIn.com (feel free to connect with me there, too).
YOUR TURN: Please share your experiences with LinkedIn and other social networking sites by e-mailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org (with your permission, I will share them here or in a future column) or by putting in your comments directly into this feedback page.