"Am I really LinkedIn?" – The Dilemma of Weak Ties.

In this week’s edition of “Cynopsis: Classified Advantage” (part of a highly regarded set of newsletters from Cynopsis Media, for the TV and Media Industries) – Editor John Cox articulates the dilemma many of us face on LinkedIn:

… I received an email from someone I have never met in person, asking if I knew anyone who worked at a particular company.  I do, and I’m pretty sure he can see that I do.  He wants an introduction because he is applying for a job and would like to correspond with an insider.  In theory I have no problem in doing this.  In theory.

Many of you, particularly those who have had relatively long or successful careers, know where this is going. We’re at a stage of our careers where we have a broad network of colleagues consisting of VP-level executives, CxO’s, and other well-known founders and thought leaders. We also want to connect or otherwise help as many people as we can. It’s not just about giving back; it’s part of our modern networking culture. Bigger-picture thinking: Add value to others by passing along ideas, opportunities and connections, and it will in turn increase our value. But, here’s the dilemma:

The person I know at the company is a very good friend of mine, and I believe that an introduction will carry some weight with her.  And this is what is causing my hesitation.  I cannot recommend the person who wrote me, because I don’t know them.  But he didn’t ask for a recommendation, just a introduction.  But I believe that even an introduction is a type of recommendation, even if only implied. Plus the woman at the company is extremely busy, do I want to add to her plate for someone that I don’t know?  Even if I explain the situation with her, how I never met this man but would it be okay if I made the introduction, I think she would say yes, because it was me asking.  I feel that makes me at least partly responsible for anything that may happen.  A responsibility I am afraid I am unwilling to take.

One of the principles that explains the phenomenal growth and success of modern social networks is “The Strength of Weak Ties” – coined from the title of 1973 paper by (now) Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter. While there are many applications and interpretations of this effect, two are immediately relevant for online social networks that overlap with professional networks:

  1. Having a relatively large network of acquaintances, friends, and friends of friends etc., can be just as valuable as having a network of people with whom you have strong relationships.
  2. Our personal and professional value increases with our ability to connect people in our network, to ideas or to other people, with whom they may derive some value. In other words, I am valuable to my network if I am a good ‘connector’

Sure. Great. But put the two together and we have a dilemma: If I am a good connector (and my connections are valuable on some subjective scale) and I also have a broad network of acquaintances with whom I have “weak ties”, now there’s a problem. If I avoid growing the ‘weak ties network’ then I appear to be a snob or unwilling to help (and my value as a connector decreases). If I maintain the network of ‘weak ties’ then eventually many will ask for connections. Connecting a ‘weak tie’ to a valuable ‘strong tie’ may weaken my connection to that strong tie. If I insulate myself from the ‘weak ties’ there is a danger that I will isolate myself from opportunities and drastically reduce my networking value: My ‘strong ties’ don’t need me to connect them with each other.
For example, what about the student who took a class from me 2-3 years ago, who now wants an introduction to a VP at Facebook? In this case, the student is a ‘weak tie’ (presumably since we have had no other interactions before or since). Do I connect the student? If I cannot connect the student, should I avoid making the connection on LinkedIn at all?
It’s a modern dilemma – but one I am sure will work itself out over the next few years as online social networks become as important as the offline networks, or have the boundaries blurred so much that we cannot tell the difference (if you are over 40 you probably cannot imagine not knowing the difference; if you are under 30 you probably see no difference between your online friends and offline friends).
Until the online social norms and etiquette catches up, most of us will continue to be as frustrated and as conflicted as John Cox:

What really bothers me about all of this, is that I really want to help the person who wrote me.  I want to help anyone and everyone to get a job.  And with people I know well, I really do try and find them jobs whenever I can.  But I find my resolve failing with people who I don’t know well.  To the point where I don’t feel comfortable even making an introduction.  I feel like the worst kind of hypocrite, believing in the idea of LinkedIn, yet not following through when given the opportunity.

Most of us feel the same way, but we’re not hypocrites. There is also a responsibility, often ignored, on the part of the ‘weak tie’: They need to recognize that they indeed might be a ‘weak tie’, and refrain from abusing the relationship by asking for a connection. There is another way, but it takes work: If you are ‘weak tie’ (and hopefully you recognized that you are a ‘weak tie’ to your connection) – then work on becoming a stronger tie. Add some value to me, or to my network. Start building a relationship where we have more interactions. Offer to connect me to others. “Copy” me on information that showcases your value more (forward or tweet links to your blog, news items, quotes or interesting words of wisdom). Once we become a stronger tie, don’t be surprised if I volunteer to connect you to one of my strong ties. Until then, we remain ‘weak ties’, and we all must tread carefully.

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