Beware of LinkedIn Mutual Contacts

Just how well do we know the people in our social networks?

One of my LinkedIn contacts approached me recently with an interesting business proposition that he promised would be very positive for me.  What’s not to like about that!

Eager as I was to accept his offer, I did some due diligence.  I noted his impressive resume, and saw that he and I shared a number of mutual contacts.  That was reassuring.  I didn’t actually remember where or how it was the guy and I got connected, but I did know our mutual friends, and that tended to confirm what I was hoping to have confirmed – that he was a bona fide business leader, exactly as he said he was.  Of course, turning to me for advice and assistance, and offering  lucrative compensation in return, clearly validated his business good sense!

Can you see where this is going?  Well, I surely didn’t, not for quite a while, and although I was made myopic by optimism and hope (and, like all the best scams, by greed too), I was also encouraged in that perception by the LinkedIn footprint of the person in question.

But, let’s start at the beginning, or possibly on a tangent, before coming back to my particular situation.

How many LinkedIn contacts do you have?  If you’re like me, you’ve already attained the point where your profile page simply says ‘500+’ – one source suggests half of LinkedIn users have over 500 contacts.  I have 985 contacts, which is close to what is suggested to be a site average of 930.

There are some surprising truths obscured within that seemingly self-affirming and happy-making number.

Do you remember, in the ‘good old days’, when LinkedIn would report fascinating statistics, showing not only your number of contacts, but the number of one-step-removed contacts (ie all the contacts of your contacts) and the number of two- and three-step-removed contacts too.  By the time you’d reached down to the contacts of contacts of contacts, chances are you know many millions of people, making you feel omniscient and extraordinarily popular.

Using the average of 930 contacts, then reducing this to allow half of the second level contacts to be duplicates and three-quarters of the third level contacts to be duplicates, then 930 x 465 x 232 = 100 million people within your friends, friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends network.  The next step – say multiply by another 116, brings us to a number larger than the total world population of 7.4 billion (and massively larger than LinkedIn’s total network of slightly more than 500 million members).

We are all now living the truth of the oft cited aphorism that everyone is only six steps removed from anyone else on the entire planet.

The original six degrees of separation concept, proposed in 1929, has long fascinated people.  One has to wonder how accurate it was in the very unconnected world of the 1920s, but it has subsequently been formally studied many times and more or less validated.  More recent studies suggest that, at least for people on the internet (which these days is half the people on the planet) there are now as few as four degrees of separation between randomly selected people, a result similar to my very rough calculation above.

It has become tremendously easy to build out one’s ‘social networks’ – on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and the growing clamor of other networks too (even my own  Many people feel that the size of their social networks – usually prominently displayed by the sites – is a public validation of their social value and likeability, and feel obliged to accept friend requests to grow their numbers.

But, as we grow our networks, we are simultaneously trying to quieten the small voice that whispers to us ‘You don’t really know this person’ and ‘That person isn’t even an acquaintance, let alone a friend’.

On LinkedIn, people are likely to accept contact requests if the person seems semi-interesting, or potentially a useful contact in the future, or if the person is known by a mutual friend or two, whether they actually know the person directly or not.

Which leads to another interesting field of study – how many people can one truly be friends with, and be able to interact comfortably with?  The number, sometimes termed ‘Dunbar’s number‘ after one of the original researchers, seems to hover around 150.

This has been validated, to a fairly consistently close count, by a number of different studies and measures of what is of course very much a subjective process.

So, here’s an interesting divergence.  For most of us, we can only keep some type of relationship with about 150 people.  But we have social networks stretching to many times that.  The average number of friends on Facebook is 338, and younger users have many more.

LinkedIn members have considerably larger networks, with some sources suggesting an average of about 930.

Dunbar’s number tells us we probably can’t keep up with more than 150 people, and most of us have about twice that number of friends on Facebook, six times that number of contacts on LinkedIn, and who knows how many people we follow on Twitter and other social network services.  I’ll concede, with almost no guilt, that probably indeed 5/6 or more of my LinkedIn contacts are people who in truth I don’t know at all and never interact with.

And, returning to the point of this story, would you too be willing to concede that probably most of your LinkedIn contacts are people you do not know well?  Most of all, they are not people you’d be able to credibly vouch for – even though you might well have clicked to endorse some of their skills.  Quite likely you endorsed them because they first endorsed you, and you felt obliged to reciprocate, because it seemed like a harmless and courteous thing to do.

Chances are you’ve had people who you don’t know, and who presumably don’t know you either, endorse you for skills that maybe you never even knew you had.  For example, 34 people have endorsed me for public speaking.  I don’t disagree with their positive ratings, but I’ll wager that not more than five or ten of those people have ever heard me speak in public.

This is a well-known ploy by people eager to build any social network ‘footprint’.  For example, the quickest way to build a large number of followers on Twitter is simply to follow hundreds or even thousands of people, yourself.  Many of those people will automatically follow you in turn.  Then, a couple of days later, delete the people you are following, and the chances are those people won’t realize you deleted them, and if they followed you, they’ll still continue to follow you.  Repeat the process a few times and you’ll end up with an impressive number of people following you, and a great ratio between your followers and the few remaining people you still follow, yourself.

Back to my story.  So, there I was, thanking my lucky stars that this ‘mutual friend of friends’ was approaching me with his bounteous offers.  The guy had plenty of featured skills and endorsements, as well as plenty of contacts.

But before I started to commit to what he was asking of me, I called one of our mutual contacts.  That person was much like me – he couldn’t remember where or how he had met the guy, or even when he had added him as a contact.  I called another mutual contact.  The same thing.  I called a third, and again, the same story – ‘Well, I don’t really remember, but I think he knew some people I knew and seemed like a potentially useful person to know, so I added him’.

One of the mutual contacts in turn called some of his mutual contacts, and not a single person had any direct personal knowledge of the guy.

Things started to unravel, particularly when the guy named-dropped an alleged close VVIP business associate of his who I did know and approached, finding out that rather than a close business relationship, there was totally no relationship at all.

So I narrowly dodged a bullet.

My point in all of this is that while LinkedIn is a great service and networking tool, one needs to be very cautious and not accept profiles at face value.  Our shared eagerness to build our networks, and to fairly reciprocate endorsements with mutual endorsements has unavoidably created a monster.  Don’t let it devour you, as it almost did me.

But feel welcome to connect with me and add to my endorsement count!

2 thoughts on “Beware of LinkedIn Mutual Contacts”

  1. My skepticism with LinkedIn confirmed! I don’t even connect with those I know. Especially since I am retired and not looking for a Job. (I don’t even do Facebook. Does that make me a Luddite?)

  2. I stopped using LinkedIn (It is hard to get out of LinkedIn’s grip) when I started to get messages by LinkedIn saying some Chinese person from some part of the world “Has accepted your invitation” I am (Hopefully) out of LinkedIn. If I can only prevent Facebook from suggesting unknown people to be friends, life will be beautiful.

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