LinkedIn has a language problem that is actually meaningless. So get over it.

Folk I know, particularly I’m thinking here of folk best described as “social media types”, are a bit sniffy about LinkedIn (direct link to my profile).

I wonder if it’s stuff like this that puts them off? The capture below is a box I get when adding someone to my network on Linkedin. Before I can add someone to my contacts list, I need to tell Linkedin about how I know them, and this quickly breaks down the process because of the way language is imposed on the activity:


In this example “Kelly” can only be a “colleague”, “classmate”, someone I’ve “done business” with, a “friend” or “other” (if you select “I don’t know Kelly”, Linkedin will tick you off as the network is supposed to be about real relationships*, and not a way of meeting new people).

Do relationships work like that? Not really, people slip between categories (how about a friend who you went to Uni with and now work with? Where do they go? What box do they go into?). For many folk, these categories don’t even make sense because our world doesn’t consist of “doing business”. In my case the people I want to keep in touch with are academics, media professionals, and past, present or future students; my contacts don’t fit well in these boxes. So students become “colleagues” (which is kind of nice, as I prefer to teach in a collaborative rather than an authoritarian mode), and folk I’ve met at conferences are probably people I’ve “done business with”.

My hypothetical “social media types” are used to having more control over their data than this. They’re used to tagging objects in ways that make sense to them, and using multiple tags so that they can retrieve the right data at the right time. LinkedIn doesn’t allow this. It presents itself as  a “social” tool but speaks a language that seems asocial to those who really care about what social media is and does, and how it works.

So does that mean Linkedin isn’t for them?

Well, the first thing to note is that this data collection point seems to be meaningless. I’m not sure where the data goes, but on a free account it seems to shoot into the ether. Never again will the type of connection I have to Kelly matter to my LinkedIn life; the type of connection is not retrievable, or editable and provides me with no benefits. Kelly will get an email that will show the relationship I’ve defined (perhaps this is meant to jog her memory, but actually it might jar her if she thinks “wait… we’re not friends“). And that’s it. Perhaps something nefarious happens back in LinkedIn’s labs with that relationship data, but it’s piss poor quality data so I doubt it.

Let’s get over the language problem. 

If you can make yourself happy to game your way through the labels that LinkedIn imposes, you can have a LinkedIn network. Which brings us to the next question: why do I actually need a presence on LinkedIn? You don’t, of course, but it can be useful. There are some lively discussion groups – that might appeal. Your profile is basically a CV, and they do get looked at by recruiters, and people do get hired for projects and jobs – that might appeal too. It’s a low maintenance place to be: set up your profile and your done. You can use a selective tweet option to push key messages from Twitter to LinkedIn, making the “status” feature easy to use. It’s low effort and it’s free – that might appeal. It’s a central reserve of contacts, which updates when they move jobs (like Plaxo without being a major pain in the arse), so that might appeal as a back up way of finding folk who don’t sit in your primary network. These are all useful things.

Get out of your bubble

For me the key argument to having some presence on LinkedIn is that you’re giving yourself a little more power. Got a problem you need to solve? Your  colleagues in the office, your blog readers, and your Twitter followers may not have the answers to all of your questions. In fact the way those networks have selected themselves, they’re less likely to know things that you don’t know than someone you rarely speak to. Similarly, the people in your close network probably do similar things to you – if you ever want to ask that network for work, you’re just cannibalising the total work within that group. Widen things out, reach across to somewhere else that speaks a different language and sees the world differently and who knows what answers and opportunities you might find.

Here comes the science:
This closing argument is all about structural holesstrong and weak ties, and brokerage. Network and organisational theorists such as Burt & Granovetter basically suggest that sitting between two networks is incredibly powerful: you can access the knowledge of both for personal gain, but also you can curry favour from both by brokering exchanges.

*you can of course use it for “introductions” which is incredibly weird and convoluted. Or you can just hack around all this – I’ve got a growing collection of BCU colleagues in my LinkedIn network who I’ve never had a face to face meeting.

By Jon Hickman

Hi, I'm Jon. I teach and research digital culture, social media and new media practice at Birmingham City University. Find out more about me with this lovely CV: Find out about my work at the Birmingham Centre for Media & Cultural Research: