Saturday, June 11, 2011

My Year of Linking In: 415 Connections and Counting

Last spring, I attended a social media presentation whose topic was “Making the Most of LinkedIn.”  The speaker insisted that anyone who had fewer than 200 connections in their network was not even close to using the service appropriately.  

Well, butter my butt and call me a biscuit, I thought. Here I was, feeling way ahead of the game, because I had posted an updated resume and a business-appropriate photo (taken by my daughter, but still). But with only about a hundred contacts (give or take a few relatives and some old bosses who might, I feared, be dead), I felt inadequately linked and utterly underachieving.

While I remain unmoved by the charms of Facebook, which I’ve joined only to spy on my teenagers, I am appreciative of the promise of LinkedIn. The no-nonsense format delivers updates on the stuff I care about, and the data that is delivered – schools attended, places worked – can be just as informative in a shorter span of time than 700 profile pictures on someone’s Facebook page.

LinkedIn reminds me of my hometown, a place where the first question asked upon meeting someone socially was, “Where did you go to school?” In this case, it always meant high school, and the answer, most of the time, could peg someone geographically, socially and demographically, all with one short answer.

After learning from that presentation that I was a woefully underperforming LinkedIn-er, I decided to challenge myself. I vowed to become a LinkedIn Samurai within one year, with at least 200 contacts, if not more. The challenge was not an easily conquered one. First, I worked for myself (co-workers: one). Also, I had moved to a new city from my hometown, which was also the home of my alma mater and original places of employment. 

Worse, while my freelance business was doing well, I had put all excess social energy these past few years into mommy-dearest activities, not social media breakfasts and hip happening happy hours. While everyone else had been drinking cosmopolitans and exchanging business cards, I’d been draining the dregs of leftover Capri Sun pouches at the Girl Scout picnic and trying to poach other women’s best babysitters.

The first step in the challenge was to begin to pay attention whenever I met someone new. I surprised myself with how many customer meetings I attended where at least one person was previously unknown to me. When I heard myself saying, “Hi, I’m Julie Kendrick, I don’t think we’ve met,” I would scribble the new person’s name in the corner of my notepad. Once a week or so, I’d invite all the new people I’d met to become part of my network. Most of them accepted – I figured they were trying to pad their contact lists, too.

This “meet one, invite one” philosophy only got me so far, however, and I decided to take a more aggressive approach. I began to troll the contact lists of the people who had just accepted my invitations, figuring that they might know someone I knew, too.

This method yielded results, but also some truly disturbing finds. As I spread my nets wider, the catches contained some specimens I couldn’t quite recognize as actual members of the working class. There were the e. e. cummings-ites, who displayed their names in lower case and discussed their accomplishments in free verse. There were the CAPITAL FIRSTERS, who shouted their entire resumes in upper case. I found typos everywhere, such as the woman who boasted of her work in “immerging” markets, or the event planner who listed her field of endeavor as “entertaimnent.”

The photographs, especially, got weirder and weirder, the farther I ventured away from my home base. These associates-of-associates had made some interesting choices when they clicked “upload” on their profile page, I’m just saying. I ran across several people wearing dark sunglasses. At least two had selected pictures of themselves with their boyfriends, and one sad sack displayed herself with her dog licking her face. There were the pictures taken from so far away that I wondered what the person was trying to hide. On the other hand, there were several photographs of such a close-up-and-personal nature that I felt qualified to offer a dermatological assessment. And more than one person seemed to have decided “Hey, that thoughtful-hand-on-chin-pose looked great in my high school graduation photo, so I might as well give it a shot here.”

Many of the profile photos were clearly taken on vacation, on the theory that the sunburn and off-the-shoulder cocktail dress would impress a prospective customer or employer, right?  (Also, your husband's shoulder that you cropped out and thought I wouldn't notice?  I see it.) I wondered if calling attention to the quality and quantity of free time one enjoyed was really the best business tactic. I remember a former boss (who, aptly, looked just like Mr. Spacely from The Jetsons) who told me, "The minute the candidate mentions 'balance' in a job interview, I cross 'em off my list."

Back in my slowly expanding universe of contacts, I soldiered on.  I found some colleagues from a few jobs ago with whom it was truly a pleasure to reconnect. I was able to introduce some friends who were starting projects that required each other’s unique talents. And, I’m happy to say that, one year later, I have 415 connections ... and no plans to include that picture from Disney World as my profile shot.

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