Friday, May 31, 2013

If you don't get it, work out its value to you, or don't use it. I've noticed a real hostility towards LinkedIn. People openly say it's useless, and report uneasily that people they don't know are requesting them as contacts, and 'endorsing' them for various skills they've listed on their profile.

"It just makes no sense. Completely random," said one of my Facebook friends today. "I mean, what is the point? What is the point of LinkedIn? Why am I even on there?"

"It's just so ridiculous and has no actual value," added another person.

"LinkedIn is total self-promotion even if you are aware of it or not," said a third person. "How can it be taken seriously when strangers endorse your attributes? May as well download a PhD."

My friend explained how she has found herself feeling out of control there: "I am clicking 'accept' because I am an idiot and don't want to hurt their feelings/make them mad. I accepted people I vaguely knew, then people I wondered if I knew, then strangers – a continuum of vagueness. They send reminders if you ignore them and I always worry I've met someone and forgotten them. I live in dread of being rude. So it's my own fault but the endorsements thing is more recent."

Every social network has users who approach it randomly and indiscriminately – spammers, inept self-promoters, and other idiots – and most other users learn through experience to avoid them. You don't reply to randoms who message you on Facebook trying to hit on you. You report Twitter and Tumblr spambots.

LinkedIn itself emphasises that it's meant to replicate your real-world business contacts in an online environment. It has safeguards in place that mean you can't request that someone connect with you unless you have mutual connections, specify how you know them, and offer proof that you do, such as the person's email address.

LinkedIn only has value in certain industries that do business by deploying 'networks' in a very systematic, ritualised way. My brother, for instance, has a very specific skill set and has worked in the finance and telecommunication industries. He's received approaches from recruiters via LinkedIn, because his profile clearly shows where he's worked and what the nature of that work has been.

For me, in the 'writing industry', its value is more nebulous. I find LinkedIn useful for making my film industry contacts explicit, because my 'value' as a reviewer is greater to film PRs if I can show them that I'm well-connected, have a track record in the industry, and am not just some random blogger trying to scam my way into preview screenings.

As a journalist I also like to 'link in' with editors I've worked with, because that's such an important part of maintaining a freelance career.

If you accept the connection request of someone you don't know – someone who isn't in your industry, lives on the other side of the world, or otherwise has nothing in common with you – you're diluting the aspect of LinkedIn that actually makes it good for finding jobs and connecting with industry people. I feel as if people have been making the mistake of just linking up with all their friends because LinkedIn is a 'thing', and then wondering why they've created basically a 'shit version of Facebook' that makes demands on them that they don't expect and don't want. And for many people, Facebook already performs the same networking function as LinkedIn, but with a more casual, informal atmosphere that works much better in their industry.

If you can't see the value of a social network, or believe its function is already being served by another place you already hang out online, simply don't use it… although FOMO (fear of missing out) means lots of people sign up anyway.

For instance, I didn't get Pinterest for the longest time. I first noticed people on Tumblr linking to pics from Pinterest (and Tumblr, as well, is a blogging platform that was deeply un-intuitive to me  when I first began using it), and when I finally got my Pinterest invite, I was like, "What's the point of this? It's just a stream of pretty pictures!"

I feel embarrassed mentioning this now, but it took me aaaages to realise that you could click on a picture in Pinterest to take you to the site where it was originally published. That's why there are all those recipe pics – you click on the pic to access the actual recipe.

Nonetheless, the value of Pinterest is that it uses images metaphorically: the images don't just represent themselves, but are a visual shorthand for the meanings a user assigns to them. A hairstyle picture represents how you want your own hair to look. A Hollywood red carpet picture could represent appreciating the dress's designer, aspiring to look like (or fuck) the wearer, or chronicling the awards season more generally.

Now I've realised this value, I've made Pinterest valuable to me in a way that other social networks can't replicate.

I've never joined Instagram because it pisses me off to see its users spamming their followers on multiple other social-media platforms with the same pics, yet denying them the opportunity to like or comment unless they're also Instagram users. (It especially irritates me how the hashtags and user mentions, which are meaningful on Instagram, become meaningless and exclusionary when replicated on Twitter or Facebook or Tumblr, simply reminding me that I'm looking into this community from the outside.

I've been using Flickr since 2006 and I'll stick with that, even though its social component has almost entirely migrated over to Instagram. My favourite thing about Flickr is that it saves your original photos in their original format. It doesn't crop and resize them, and make them into a stream. Much as it's annoying and fiddly to go back through Twitter to find a particular tweet, I imagine it's annoying to find a particular Instagram image. But I have my Flickr photos organised so I can find the one I'm looking for easily and download it at its original size.

Nonetheless, I've noticed that my friends on other social-media platforms have entire conversations and connections on Instagram that I'm shut out from because I'm not a user. It's getting so that I'm feeling I have to participate if I want to socialise online.

However, let's take a counter-example: Google+. When it launched with great fanfare and great exclusivity (you had to get an invite from an existing user, much like the original launch of Gmail), I was right there. I created my 'circles', hung out there for a bit… and then just never went back. I just can't see what G+ offers that Facebook and Twitter don't. And whenever I do pop my head in to see what's going on, the place is like a ghost town.

Any social network is only valuable inasmuch as it corrals a group of people you enjoy interacting with, and who can help you source and distribute information in ways that are useful to you – whether that's sharing cool stuff you've found online, getting a new job, chronicling beautiful things you saw, advertising for a housemate… or promoting your new book.

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