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Rethinking Social Media: The Worth Of Trust In Online Business Networking

In the February 2010 issue of Harper’s Magazine is an essay entitled “The Serfdom of Crowds”, excerpted from You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, the latest book by computer scientist, web guru, and author Jaron Lanier. You Are Not a Gadget serves as a bracing rebuttal to the loud hallelujah chorus of praise for all things internet-related. Of social networking Lanier writes,

An individual who is receiving a flow of reports about the romantic status of a group of friends must learn to think in terms of the flow if it is to be perceived as worth reading at all. Am I accusing all those hundreds of millions of users of social-networking sites of reducing themselves in order to be able to use the services? Well, yes, I am. I know quite a few people, most of them young adults, who are proud to say that they have accumulated thousands of friends on Facebook. Obviously, their statements can be true only if the idea of friendship is diminished.

These words pulled me up short. Minutes before reading them, I’d received a request on LinkedIn for a recommendation from one of my contacts. When I clicked on their profile I realized that I had no idea who they were or how I had come to connect with them. At one time accepting their invitation to connect on LinkedIn must have seemed like a good idea, because here they were in my list of connections, and there they were asking me for my recommendation.

Let’s pause there for a moment and consider what LinkedIn has to say about accepting or responding to invitations:

LinkedIn believes that when it comes to building your network, it is all about the quality of the connections and not about the quantity of connections. Your network should be centered on quality of knowledge, resources, skills and advocacy that LinkedIn can help unlock.

…Invitations are a great option to ask people to join your network. When sending Invitations, ensure that you know and trust the person you are extending the Invitation to. This is generally someone you have worked with, collaborated on projects with or maybe attended school with. These will be people that can recommend you to others and will become your first degree connections.

Looking over my list of contacts on LinkedIn, I can honestly say that among them are a few people I don’t know well at all. They are people who’ve perhaps read my blog, followed me on Twitter, or are fellow members of a professional networking site. The basis for these connections at times seems arbitrary, because social media and human nature make it easy to manufacture or claim kinship, whether it’s sharing an alma mater, a profession, a political view, or a hometown. But are all these individuals people I could recommend, based on direct, personal knowledge and with a clear conscience? To be honest: no. Some. But not all.

In the end I declined the request and removed this person from my list of connections. If this person was willing to ask a casual acquaintance to recommend them, then this was someone I did not care to be linked with any longer. But it left me asking, in accepting a LinkedIn invitation without undertaking due diligence, are we devaluing the currency of online social networking?

How many of us stop to weigh the words “it is all about the quality of the connections and not about the quantity of connections” before accepting invitations from strangers to connect? If a business networking site like LinkedIn is to have any worth, it must depend upon principled users. Otherwise the recommendations that LinkedIn urges users to obtain to complete their profile remain suspect.

Readers, do not mistake this post for a rejection of social media by a long-time blogger. I am not denying that social media have value for me – as water cooler, newsstand, and town square. They have led me to substantial, real-world friendships and allowed me to keep in touch with people who matter to me. Nor do I argue that regular, in-person contact is the sole means to establish or sustain a meaningful relationship. Email, Skype calls, instant messages, telephone time, and, yes, messages posted on social networking sites, can nurture collegial ties and friendships across distances great and small.

As worthwhile for some purposes social media may be, their wow-that’s-so-cool impact should not blind us to their obvious limits. Strip away the hype to reveal the teetering house of cards that social networking constructs of our trust. Social media can reduce to parody what is meaningful and valuable about relationships and personal connections. They can lower our standards or overpower our discernment. The entrepreneur or social media expert may be a disbarred lawyer or a convicted felon. It’s hard to tell when the light’s dazzling our eyes. But let’s remember the enduring truth in the aphorism “on the internet nobody knows you’re a dog“.

So long as trust is aspirational not dependably operational, what can any of us do? Two adages come to mind. In the words of the authors of negotiation classic Getting to Yes, “Be trustworthy, not trusting.” And, as a former U.S. president is purported to have once said: “Trust, but verify.”

As for me, I am in the process of drafting a LinkedIn policy, as I did for Twitter (although without the wiseassery). If you have one yourself, tell me about it. What guidelines have you set for accepting or declining invitations, or making or requesting recommendations? I’d welcome hearing from you.


Diane J. Levin

Diane Levin, J.D., is a mediator, dispute resolution trainer, negotiation coach, writer, and lawyer based in Marblehead, Massachusetts, who has instructed people from around the world in the art of talking it out. Since 1995 she has helped clients resolve disputes involving tort, employment, business, estate, family, and real property… MORE >

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