Social Networking: Theory and Practice

I’ve been a student of social network theory for years, enjoying the work of Duncan Watts, Albert-László Barabási, Jon Kleinberg, and a number of other researchers investigating this field. It should be no surprise that a topic that is so core to our humanity has attracted attention from some of our best and brightest.

And I’ve dabbled a bit on the theoretical side myself. The TunkRank measure (I’m indebted to Jason Adams for his implementing it on a live site!) attempts to take the most basic assumption about our social behavior–the constraint that we have a finite attention budget–and explore its implications for influence over social networks. I have a few unexplored hypotheses queued up for when I can find the spare time to try validate them empirically!

But why settle for theory? We live in an age where social networks compete with web search (and perhaps complement search) as the hottest online technologies. If we’re not reading about Google vs. Bing, we’re reading about Facebook vs. Twitter, with LinkedIn offering a third way that seems to co-exist with its more storied peers. In this post, I’d like to focus on LinkedIn.

LinkedIn, despite its feature creep, is still fairly old-school: its raison d’être is for users to build, maintain, and exploit their professional networks. In theory, connections on LinkedIn represent present or past working relationships that become the basis for referrals–whether the goal is employment, sales, or partnership. LinkedIn is not the only professionally oriented social network, but at this point it’s certainly the dominant one.

But I’ve found at least two additional ways to use LinkedIn that I’d like to share:

Intelligence gathering. For reasons I don’t yet claim to understand, people share far more information about themselves–and in a much cleaner, structured form–on LinkedIn than in perhaps any other online medium. Most people’s resumes are not available online, but their LinkedIn profiles are tantamount to resumes. Moreover, their structured format makes it possible for LinkedIn to assemble aggregate profiles of companies, revealing composite pictures that must drive some of those companies’ legal and HR departments batty! At a higher level, LinkedIn also works well as a discovery tool–much more so now they’ve enabled faceted search. It’s still a bit tricky to explore people and companies by topic, but far more effective using LinkedIn than using any other tool I’m aware of.

Meeting new people. Cold-calling, spamming–pick your poison. In short, LinkedIn doesn’t have to only be about connecting with people you already know. But there’s an art to sending unsolicited messages: you have to pass the moral equivalent of a CAPTCHA by proving that your communication strategy isn’t indiscriminate. Let me use a personal example (that Maisha Walker was nice enough to write up in her Inc. magazine column). I decided that I wanted to find everyone on LinkedIn who might be interested in HCIR ’09. So I searched for everyone whose profiles indicated interests in both IR and HCI and sent out a targeted message (in fact, a invite with personalized message–a feature I recently feared they’d killed). The results were overwhelmingly positive. I’m not sure how many of the people I contacted will attend, but I raised awareness without inflicting annoyance. Better yet, one of the people I contacted then discovered I was looking for volunteers to review the draft of my book–and I thus obtained hours of help of someone who, just a day before, had never heard of me!

What intrigues me about LinkedIn (and other social networks) is the extent to which I am exploiting attention market inefficiencies (as LinkedIn may be doing as well). For example, LinkedIn makes it easy to send unsolicited invitations to anyone. Granted, you can lose this privilege by even having a couple of people respond to invitations with “I don’t know this person”. There’s also the question of why people’s social norms around disclosure are so different on LinkedIn than anywhere else–people not only post the content of their resumes, but go through the effort of providing it to LinkedIn in a structured form! Meanwhile, LinkedIn keeps tightfisted control over the information it aggregates–understandably, they recognize that this content is their most valuable asset.

People are still getting used to the idea of social networks. It will be interesting to see how their use evolves, particularly in term of information and attention market efficiency.

By Daniel Tunkelang

High-Class Consultant.

9 replies on “Social Networking: Theory and Practice”

Great article. The bottom line for people is that social networking (sites) are just tools. Relationships still have to be cultivated. People are getting tired of others who are just hoarding numbers as opposed to building real relationships via social networking. If you don’t know the person you’re connected to, what value are you bringing to them or vice versa? Are you using social networks to facilitate connections, make introductions and build a solid network? Anything else is just “background noise”. Perhaps people need to start thinking about the way they use social networking and how it could benefit them instead of doing it because it’s the “in thing” to do.

Adrienne Graham
Hues Consulting & Management Inc


And there I was thinking I was the only one that used LinkedIn for Private Invesitigator purposes. Things such as:

* determining which technology a prospects site is writen in when it isn’t clear from the source/headers/anything else. For example: Google: +cms +bbc
* checking everyone’s bio before meeting new clients/prospects or interviewing someone

* seeing if employees at our competitors are talking about things they shouldn’t be talking about. “Simon is working on the XYZ pitch” or “Harry is working on XYZ: even though the fact that my company won the pitch isn’t announced yet”.

* it’s a great indicator is someone is planning to resign. If Bob is in my team and I see “Bob has 18 new recommendations” I’ve got a bad feeling Bob is job hunting,

Also: I’d never seen your TunkRank before. It’s cool. I think I’m doing alright. @mcboof is currently only 7% behind @dtunkelang himself:-)


“For reasons I don’t yet claim to understand, people share far more information about themselves–and in a much cleaner, structured form–on LinkedIn than in perhaps any other online medium.”

I think most people post more clearly and cleanly – and more honestly – is that their current colleagues are reading their profiles – hard to “uptrend” the truth when someone is watching.

Also – the nature of “filling in the blanks” let’s you segment and express your thoughts more clearly.

I’m a big LinkedIn fan –


Adrienne, thanks, and I agree. In fact, I worry that my large number of connections of LinkedIn gives the impression that I’m a spammer. But I’m proud that you could name almost any of my connections, and I could tell you the story of the connection. Hopefully I keep that all in my head as age takes its toll!

Jon M., I suspect there are a lot of us amateur stalkers / PIs. And indeed, your point about people adding a sudden rash of endorsements is well taken. On a couple of occasions, that is how a I found out that a colleague was on his way out.

John X, that’s a good point–the structure and context of the process encourages both honesty and clarity. It’s a nice piece of social engineering that we could all learn from as we design interfaces to elicit content (and effort) from people.


I was dubious about social networking sites. But after I became a food blogger, I was truly amazed at how welcoming and giving people could be through cyberspace. It’s led to some really cherished friendships with people I ended up meeting in person. Who would have guessed the power of it all? Not me, I must admit.


Carolyn, I completely empathize. We’ve all seen social networking gone wrong, where it becomes a game of collecting connections or followers and keeping score (though if you’re going to do that, at least use TunkRank!). But I share your experience in developing meaningful social and professional relationships online. Perhaps, as Daniel Lemire as suggested, we need to abandon the word “virtual” as a synonym for online. After all, online communication is real. And it’s spectacular. 🙂


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