My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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thinking through a linked in request

First, i admit: i don’t get the business world. Thus, the social norms there are very lost on me. Recently i was faced with a Linked In request that brought this issue to the forefront.

I’m linked to two people that i barely know because of social politeness – Person B & D. Person B had a “friend” (A) that wanted to get person E (“friend” of D’s) to do something for him. I’ve never heard of A or E and only have vague name/product recognition of B&D. Person B passes me this note from A with an attached note saying that he doesn’t know him but it sounds reasonable.

So, as i saw it, i could have:
1) Passed it on, acknowledging that i barely know B to the barely known D and let it be his problem
2) Stopped it, saying that i don’t feel comfortable passing this on not knowing any of the parties
3) Pretended like i’m a ostrich and make it go away by sticking my head in the ground, fingers in ears, eyes closed screaming “i don’t see you”

Now, if you know me, you know that i chose 3. I *HATE* being stuck in the middle of socially awkward situations. All this made me wanna do is run very far away from Linked In. This in turn made me feel supremely guilty because i want Linked In to work for people.

The thing about helping people out in this context is that it’s supposed to make you feel empowered, like you did a good deed. But when you’re stuck in the middle of a chain of unknowns, you’re faced with the explicit feeling that your reputation is being forced through the ringer for people you don’t know. There are a lot of *friends* that i won’t vouch for on a professional level… why should i vouch for people that i don’t know?

I realized that the only way that i’m willing to help out a friend-of-a-friend is when i really care for the well-being of my friend and trust their relationship with that person. And that takes a lot more than a recognizable professional relationship. So, i had a little idea…

Orkut relieves my guilt by letting me mark that i don’t know a person who has be-friended me. I don’t have to say no – i can simply say i don’t know this person. They don’t know it and i don’t have to feel guilty. Although Orkut’s only purpose of this is guilt reduction, Linked In could actually use this approach to their advantage.

For example, why can’t i list all of the people that i know and rather than say how important they are to me, say what kind of requests i’m willing to receive from that end. For example:
1) Willing to take any requests that come down the chain from this person, no matter how many links
2) Willing to take requests from this person and their friends (or perhaps willing to take requests only from the friends who are of this level of value to them…)
3) Willing to take requests from this person only
4) Not willing to receive requests from this person no matter what (a.k.a. supreme guilt reduction based on having to accept them as a friend)

Of course, this would really screw with the graphs and who one could see. But i wonder if it would help people like me who want to run away because of the discomfort.

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10 comments to thinking through a linked in request

  • The basic flaw here is that you accepted to be linked to B & D in the first place. This is why I mock yelled at Jon during your panel on “the esthetics of social networks”.

    One of the reasons you all find these systems deficient is because, probably due to novelty, y’all are just jumping in and linking up with everyone. This creates pollution and even vanadalism! You are breaking the system! It doesn’t work if you don’t network as you would “in real life”. It doesn’t work if you don’t say No sometimes.

    We eshew connections in real life all the time, sometimes in quite explicit, even mean ways. Awkward or not, it works and is necessary.

    You are not helping anybody, least of all yourself, by indiscriminately accepting “friending” requests. Sure “weighing” connections helps (aquaintance, friend, do not know, etc…) but think of it: this is all about who you know, not who you don’t (yet).

    P.s.: your request to define how you handle requests is a feature of LinkedIn, which is so far the only one to offer this, mostly because relationships/connections in the “business world” work MUCH diferently than in regular socialising. The power of money! No nonsense! What can you do for me?

  • Ah, but the problem is that i know B&D. Just not well enough to be able to forward requests. But well enough to get into significant social problems if i don’t accept their connection. And no, not everyone is really mean or explict about eschewing connections. Most people play nice in public, pretending to be someone’s friend because it is the socially polite thing to do.

  • “Just not well enough to be able to forward requests.”
    Then don’t. LinkedIn makes this quite painless.

    “Most people play nice in public, pretending to be someone’s friend because it is the socially polite thing to do.”
    Right and how much trouble does that get these people into? How many socially awkward situations?

    Let’s go macro on this: A society that behaves in such a dishonest manor, creates a dishonest culture, which in turn gets codified into law which becomes government. A system based on deception, collapses. I won’t go into any specific examples, but check the history books. Every human society has been or is in such a cycle.

    Honesty people! 😉
    “No” is an empowering word.

  • Boris – i don’t agree with you. I think that there are a lot of times in which we take on proper roles for the benefit of a community. For example, do you like all of your family members? Yet, aren’t you obliged to play nice with them? Does that mean that you will do them infinite favors? What about your colleagues? We don’t actually like everyone that we deal with on a daily basis. We don’t tell them this constantly, nor should we. “Hi, i don’t like you, but would you please make certain to do this because my boss, who i also don’t like, wants me to get you to do this?”

    Also, i believe that there should be room for deception in everyday life. “How are you today?” “Dreadful. I’ve got this hemorrhoid that won’t go away and i’m really pissed because my girlfriend won’t have sex with me. And my mood isn’t improving because you stink. You should shower more often.” Sometimes, “Fine” is a perfectly acceptable answer.

    If you’re interested in deception, make certain to read Judith Donath’s “Identity and Deception in the Virtual Community” –

  • Touch!
    But you are refering to people we have “forced contact” with.

    I am concerned about potential contact with people whom there is a high probablility I probably don’t want anything to do with in the first place. Such contact would occur because a “friend” whom ostensibly I “trust”, out of “awkwardness” could not say no to.

    To use the oft repeated (possible) future scenario of walking into a nightclub… no let’s make it a caf or bistro… I am there alone and check my social network aware mobile device. Hey, there is a “friend” of a friend of mine’s in the vicinity! I know my friend’s interests etc and I imagine he would have other friends many of whom I may have something in common with. So I message this person: “hi I am a friend of so-and-so, care to chat over coffee?” Turns out this person and I have nothing in common. Turns out my friend added this person simply out of some feeling of “having to”. What happens? My time at the bistro is ruined, I have not made a new friend, and worst of all, my trust in my friend, and his social network is quantifiably reduced. (Not to mention that at such a late stage of rollout of such technologies, anyone who actually trolls about for unsubstantial SN connections has social, and possibly psychological disorders I’d rather not deal with… hell, there are plenty of those around as it is! And who knows what their motives are? And I’m a guy!)

    Agreed, having weights such as “met once”, “don’t really know” would alleviate this, as would the LinkedIn model of having to pass the request through the 1st degree friend (in fact in this case I bet you would have no problem telling me “oh no I don’t really know him, up to you if you want to proceed”), but the 1st adds complexity to underlying tech (big deal) and the second creates a communication and contact management nightmare.

    I only take these extreme postions to point out issues I see arising, by the way. Better we figure em out now before they get formalised and rolled into 100 million handsets. 🙂

  • BTW, these situations have nothing to do with business social norms, and everything to do with the built-in weirdness of social networking systems.

  • I think you are both right 🙂

    We definitely designed LinkedIn for strong ties. It takes some time to adjust from weak-tie system where there is no meaning to links other than a public statement, so people are now learning to be more careful and not take behavior from weak-tie systems to LinkedIn.

    On LinkedIn, every link will get tested sooner or later, so I always advise people to consider the following questions before accepting a link:
    1) Are you willing to take a 5-10 minutes per year to help them with intros?
    2) Would you enjoy helping them because you think they’re great?
    3) Have the quality of people they’ve introduced to you generally been good, so you can feel good about forwarding requests for their direct contacts?
    4) Do you know what they want and need well enough to know which requests to forward to them and which ones to screen out?
    5) How much can this person help you with achieving your career and business objectives?

    Having said that, I also agree with Dana that the strong connections on LinkedIn should not be the only ones. But I think it was a good place to start, and weaker ties need to have clearly understood meanings/implications.

    Since some people appear to be adding connections beyond strong ties in order to be at the top of the search results, we will probably need to re-work our default sort order, which was intended to be the equivalent of page rank (show people first who are recommended by lots of people). I hear of many users who routinely choose the “sort by degrees of separation” option since they feel that’s more relevant than the number of connections.

  • Konstantin Guericke’s five points highlights the intersting challenge – and I will go so far as to say fallacy – of all technology-mediated SNS’s, including the business-oriented LinkedIn: Tacit behaviours socialized over centuries cannot be directly mapped to an explicit codification that is accelerated by instantaneous communications without effecting a substantive change in the social dynamics.

    Consider danah’s intial dilemma: If B had initiated non- or slightly-mediated contact with the request for the introduction of A to E, (say by a telephone call) I’m guessing the inherent personal “touch” (via direct voice conversation) would have increased danah’s comfort in speaking to D about passing the contact. I’m also willing to guess that during each of the conversations with B and D, there would have been some sort of exploration of aspects that would serve to verify the trust/reputation of both the end-point actors involved (A&E) and the processes involved (relationship links between A&B and D&E). This sort of negotiation cannot happen in the same way via strongly mediated communication. There is always a change in effect through the act of mediation, and it will take several generations yet – if ever – before we as a society have resocialized to the point where an emoticon will have the same ground effect as, say, body language or vocal nuance.

    One of our McLuhan Fellows, Sibylle Moser, is examining issues of cognitive receptivity that speaks to this very issue, in her own way. Simply put – by Marshall McLuhan himself – there is a difference in receptivity and effect between seeing the red, white and blue American flag, and a sheet of cloth with the words “American Flag” written on it. Much is changed in mediated translation.

  • Wow – great point & reference Mark – thank you!

  • Wow – great point & reference Mark – thank you!