For the few who haven't interacted with it, LinkedIn is a social networking site which is tilted primarily towards professional contacts. A well-designed profile (and the company will prod you into creating one) will have your complete CV on it and then you can establish connections with others. I got started after one of the early Millennium layoff rounds; some other employees (many soon to be ex-employees) had discovered the site (it was quite new) were using it to keep a web of connections to their former colleagues. Sounded like a good idea, so I linked to anyone at Millennium I knew well.
It was not long before I encountered a request from someone I didn't know. Since they summarized their profile as "biotech professional", I took a look, and inferred that this was someone ascribing to the motto "(S)He who dies with the most LinkedIn contacts wins!". This was my introduction to cargo cult networking, treating networking as a set of rituals which circle but do not approach the real value of networking.
I'm a huge believer in networking: I've never had a job in science that that came through a conventional application process. That includes an unpaid high school internship in materials science, a paid internship over multiple college breaks at a diagnostics company, Millennium, Codon, Infinity and my current employer, as well as several consulting gigs. Okay, if you want to be a stickler I did get stipends in graduate school, so that would be the very conspicuous outlier.
Even the positions I didn't take have all been via networking. Out of graduate school I considered one large pharma, two established biotechs and one startup -- all based on connections I made in grad school. When Millennium gave me the heave-ho, I used both my Millennium and grad school connections. Codon's expiration meant leaning on Millennium networks again. And during all of that time I was contacted by startups on several occasions, all based on either grad school or Millennium relationships Millennium is a particularly rich source because I was there 10 years and probably 3000-4000 individuals were employed there over that span. Certainly I didn't know all of them, but I did encounter a great many.
So the guideline I imposed on myself, starting with that first cargo cultist contact, is that I won't link to someone unless I've had a substantive communication with them. I won't link to someone just because we've worked at the same company, but if I've had a significant communication with them regardless of our professional relationship. So my network includes childhood friends, college friends, suppliers, colleagues -- even folks who have simply written me in response to blog posts.
LinkedIn includes a comments field so I can keep track of why I know someone. This was a surprisingly late feature; it should have been in release -1.0 but wasn't present when I joined on. Since over time my network has accreted many links, I need those little reminders an embarassing fraction of the time.
Who does that exclude? Well, I divide the cargo cultists into two categories: neutral and evil. Neutral cargo cultists I have some sympathy for: they seem to be eager individuals early in their careers looking for any inroads they can get, probably goaded on by some bad networking books. What I would say to one of them is figure out a something substantial. The true point (in my opinion) of networking is that I can make some comment about each of my contacts. If you are just finding me out of the blue and used me as a reference, I'm going to be forced to be honest and say "this is a random person I know nothing about". Saying something nice about this blog might seem the obvious answer, but then my description of you is "nice person who says nice things about my writing, but I can't say anything more". Obviously that isn't exactly exalted praise shouted from the rooftops.
Evil cargo cultists are professional recruiters who are simply trying to mine your contact set so they can recursively crawl LinkedIn. Awful professional recruiters could be the topic of a very long and angry rant which I won't launch here, but they quickly became an exception on my linking rule -- if my contact with you has been to roll my eyes during your botched attempt to recruit me (such as the time someone claimed a colleague said I would be perfect for a computational chemistry position), then you don't get a connection.
That touches on one of the dark secrets of LinkedIn: it wants to be every kind of social network, but actually is remarkably poor at being the one it is supposed to be. Status updates like Facebook? We've go that! Forums for discussing topics ? We've got that! Followers like Twitter? We've got that! The glaring omission would seem to be a code repository -- I'm sure someone at LinkedIn's management is on the prowl to acquire one.
Unfortunately, LinkedIn is actually pretty primitive for maintaining and leveraging a network. I'd love to explore my network as a network, with a graphical browser to see who in my network is connected to each other. Nope, don't do that. Perhaps it would be useful to keep a list of cargo cultists so I recognize them in the future. Nope, don't do that. Pruning out, or at least recognizing, stale accounts would be useful but tools to find them are missing. Some people are in my network two or three times because they've lost the ability to retrieve credentials from the original account; there's no easy way to distinguish those accounts. I certainly have dead individuals in my network; one I keep for sentimental reasons (a dear individual & fine scientist who died of natural causes in his laboratory), but it would be truly useful to ferret out others. It's particularly critical when you use a LinkedIn connection to forward a message to someone; I'd love to know that neither heaven nor hell will be required for the forward to happen!
Worse, LinkedIn is really challenging to use when you're trying to find someone by their professional qualifications! If you don't guess the right keywords, you're out of luck -- LinkedIn has no fuzzy matching or suggesting alternatives ala Google or PubMed. There's not a "profiles like this feature". The one feature in this neighborhood is pretty poor -- a "people who viewed X also viewed Y" list, which often is just colleagues of the individual whose profile you are looking at. What would be really ideal would be to identify a set of profiles in your network and then say "I want more like this". If there is a feature like that, it's buried in the pay version of this freemium service, and they aren't advertising it well. As far as I can tell, all paying for a membership gives you is a bigger pile of search results to drown in and the ability to spam more people more frequently.
So what was that wierd request? Well, it was from an M.D. with whom I had certainly had a substantive communication. After one of my cancer genomics pieces he had emailed me asking me to blog on his radical new theory of cancer. I demurred, and then became a bit alarmed when it was clear he was treating patients based on these unorthodox ideas. My suggestions started out mildly as "I hope you have someone else reviewing your treatment of these patients to protect them", but when he continued the exchange (and I held onto it like Ms. Amanda with a chewtoy) I may well have made some not very diplomatic suggestions that he could be mistaken for a dangerous quack, which he replied to with suggestions that I was a dangerous dabbler. So to get a connection request from him a year later (along with an invite to a webinar extolling the results of his treatments), well, that is my most ludicrous request yet. So my new rule is: I will link with you if I had a substantive AND constructive conversation with you. If I think you are quite possibly a dangerous quack, no can do!