I recently decided, somewhat randomly, to experiment a bit more with social networking. I was on LinkedIn and at some point the service asked me if it could access my Gmail contact list.
"Why not?" I thought and let LinkedIn have at it ...
Now, I don't know if you're aware of this, but Gmail keeps track of everyone you have ever had any contact with. For example, let's say Bob sends you a message and he copies a thousand people. Gmail notes each one. It doesn't do this in "My Contacts," but sensibly in "Other Contacts." And when you give LinkedIn access to your Gmail contact it can see everything, including "Other Contacts."
So after chewing on my contacts for a few minutes, LinkedIn said to me what amounted to, "Hey, I just found 4,500 people in your Gmail contacts list ... can I ask them to connect?"
This kind of messages either makes you think, "Gad, no! Just shoot me now," or, if you're wiling to just throw caution to the wind, something like, "Why not, let's do it, but let me edit that first." I thought the latter and started editing the list.
After an hour of weeding out the people I really wanted nothing to do with I finally got down to around 4,000 people and had had enough. I muttered, "Oh, what the hell ... let's do it and see what happens!" and pressed the "Do it" button. Yes, I am indeed a wild and devil-may-care kinda guy, and so with that click off went a tsunami of contact requests.
Over the next few days literally hundreds of people, with nary a qualm, connected with me. My list of LinkedIn contacts grew rapidly and a few of those new connections sent me messages and conversations started.
It was great! Some of these folks were people I hadn't had any contact with for ages, while others were folks who I had never exchanged thoughts with before. It was all really cool.
And then I got a reply from a guy who I will call Bob who I am on a private email list with. While Bob and I don't actually know each other except through this list, and as far as I can remember we've never actually had a direct discussion on the list, we are "list acquaintances"... that is, not exactly strangers.
In response to my default LinkedIn connection request of "I'd like to add you to my professional network on LinkedIn," Bob wrote, "Sorry, Mark -- thanks for the invitation, but I generally only connect with people I've actually met in person."
I wasn't offended, but his response made me think about social media and our criteria for engaging with other people. Specifically, why do we connect to people on social networks? What makes a social network connection worthwhile? Do our social network connections validate us as we would like to think they do?
In the spirit of inquiry I posted a message to the list we both belong to, as well as another list, to see what the cognoscenti had to say about who to connect with and why and I got some interesting feedback.
To sum it up, it seems there are no hard and fast rules for who you "friend" or connect with, it's all down to your own strategy for career building, connecting with friends and family, and for gathering intelligence about the world, and it depends on which social media service you're talking about. People generally think the rules of engagement for Facebook are different than for LinkedIn and that both of those sets are different from the rules we apply to Twitter.
Of course there are those who still find social networking unfathomable and pointless. A couple of hours ago I had a Skype call with a friend who is a senior executive in a traditional media company. He has accounts on Facebook and Twitter so I asked him for his thoughts on social media and who he's willing to connect with. His first comment was "They're all a frickin' waste of humanity," a viewpoint that may be a more generationally common view.
So, what do you think? Who will you connect with and why? Does the social service you use make a difference in your policy for "friending"? Check out my survey "How Do You Manage Your Social Media?" and let's see how we control who we let into our social worlds. I'll print the results in a couple of weeks.