Dilettante or visionary?

Photographer: Paul David Morris/Bloomberg

The Strength of LinkedIn's Weak Ties

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”
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I’ve got a bunch of endorsements awaiting my approval to add them to my LinkedIn profile. Here’s the list:

Some of these are obviously jokes (although I bet I could put together a nice gift basket if I had to, I’ve swatted lots of mosquitoes and I eat meat), but even most of the ones that aren’t make me scratch my head. What does it mean that people I barely know have endorsed me for “Content Strategy” or “Social Media”? Most likely it means nothing at all -- endorsing someone takes too little effort to be meaningful.

Still, the people who run LinkedIn are all about the data, and the data must tell them that the practice is worth continuing. It’s one more thing to keep people engaged, to add the tiniest bit more information to users’ profiles, to make the network more valuable.  Same with those often painfully banal LinkedIn “Influencer” posts, and the e-mails telling me there’s news about somebody I know.

The news e-mails are actually growing on me. I just learned through one of them that a guy I worked with on my college newspaper now runs an organization spawned by the University of Texas that’s pushing new technologies to promote more efficient water and energy use. That’s good to know. It’s valuable. And LinkedIn knows I find it valuable because I opened that e-mail and clicked on the news link, which is why it’s sending me more news about my connections and fewer alerts about Influencer posts. “For every 10 e-mails we used to send, we've removed four of them,” LinkedIn Chief Executive Officer Jeff Weiner said in the company’s July earnings call. “Member complaints regarding e-mails have been cut in half as a result of this effort.”

This combination of a giant, growing network and the constant, data-driven tending of it to make sure it’s of value to members is potent. Corporate recruiters paid LinkedIn $1.5 billion during the past four quarters for access to its members and their data; the other $1 billion the company took in was split almost evenly between advertising and premium subscriptions. All of these revenue streams have been growing at a pace faster than 20 percent a year. All are also relatively transparent to users, and thus unlikely to be undermined by ad-blocking software, privacy concerns or any other looming threat to the way people do business on the Internet. If you put your career history on LinkedIn, you’re not going to feel violated because some recruiter who wants to offer you a better job gets to see it.

So yeah, LinkedIn is for real. When the McKinsey Global Institute predicted earlier this year that “online talent platforms” could boost global gross domestic product by $2.7 trillion within a decade by more efficiently matching people with jobs and projects, LinkedIn accounted for much of both the data that McKinsey crunched and the economic gains it projected. The things that LinkedIn members see online are often silly and superficial, and the connections often tenuous. But underneath is a real network for finding talent and getting things done.

I’m pretty sure the same is true of the high-end, in-person version of LinkedIn that the company’s co-founder and executive chairman, Reid Hoffman, appears to spend most of his time tending. There is a rich, rambling profile of Hoffman by Nicholas Lemann in this week’s New Yorker, and it depicts a man who spends his days and nights in meetings quickly going through lists of weighty topics and names of people who maybe ought to be introduced to each other.

Here’s Hoffman at dinner with his long-time friend Mark Pincus, co-founder and CEO of online gaming shooting star Zynga:

Hoffman ticked off a few items: An upper-level undergraduate computer-science class he’s teaching at Stanford called “Technology-Enabled Blitzscaling.” Twitch, an online video platform for gamers. His recent meetings with George Osborne, the Chanceller [sic] of the Exchequer of the United Kingdom; Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary-General of the United Nations; the Duke of York; and the minister of cabinet affairs of the United Arab Emirates. How Hoffman and Pincus manage their wealth. (Hoffman is worth between three and four billion dollars, which puts him between twentieth and thirtieth place on the list of Silicon Valley’s richest people.)

“Oh, and one more,” he said. “Are you stacking A.I. at all?”

“I got that book ‘Superintelligence,’ ” Pincus said.

“I’ve actually decided it’s worth going deep on,” Hoffman said.

And here he is at dinner with McKinsey Global Institute director James Manyika, lead author of that online talent report mentioned above:

“There’s a nonzero chance that A.I. will be smarter than humans,” Manyika said.

“Isn’t that one hundred per cent? Isn’t it just a time coefficient? If we survive at all. Nobody knowledgeable thinks it’s zero. Everyone knows it’s ten to a hundred years.”

“There are people looking at this,” Manyika said. He and Hoffman were hoping that this was the kind of issue that might engage Pope Francis.

It was time for the next item on Manyika’s list: “Jobs. Middle class.”

After all this, you almost expect Hoffman and Manyika to pull out their iPhones, look up Pope Francis on LinkedIn and endorse him for “Artificial Intelligence.” And maybe “Content Strategy” while they’re at it.

Lemann relates all these encounters in a matter-of-fact, affectless tone, and the agglomeration of them inevitably leads to the impression that Hoffman, while admirably hard-working and intellectually curious for somebody with three or four billion dollars to his name, is basically a short-attention-span dilettante.

Then again, maybe another word for dilettante is networker, or connector. Recent quantitative research into social interactions, Massachusetts Institute of Technology data scientist Sandy Pentland writes in his 2014 book, “Social Physics,” has revealed that:

It is not simply the brightest who have the best ideas; it is those who are best at harvesting ideas from others. It is not only the most determined who drive change; it is those who most fully engage with like-minded people. And it is not wealth or prestige that best motivates people; it is respect and help from peers.

Of course, there are limits to what you can do if all you do is network. LinkedIn has real impact because the people it connects go on to do important things outside the network in their jobs and other projects. If they return to LinkedIn to find people and resources to help them with those jobs and other projects, all the better. But the value is mostly not in what takes place on LinkedIn. It’s in the people connected to the network and what they can accomplish alone or in groups. “If you want to understand the difference between a network and a community,” McGill University management scholar Henry Mintzberg wrote this week on HBR.org, “ask your Facebook friends to help paint your house.”

There are things loosely connected Facebook friends can do that a tight-knit community can’t, though. Spread ideas, for example. Or rumors:

If one tells a rumor to all his close friends, and they do likewise, many will hear the rumor a second and third time, since those linked by strong ties tend to be friends. If the motivation to spread the rumor is dampened a bit on each wave of retelling, then the rumor moving through strong ties is much more likely to be limited to a few cliques than that going via weak ones; bridges will not be crossed.

That’s from “The Strength of Weak Ties,” a classic 1973 paper by Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter that is sometimes cited -- by Hoffman, among others -- as an inspiration and a justification for today’s online social networks. Weak ties, Granovetter concluded, are “indispensable to individuals’ opportunities and to their integration into communities.” So that’s what people are doing when they endorse me on LinkedIn for “Confined Space Rescue.” They’re giving me opportunities.

  1. I have gotten two more of those since I started writing this piece, so maybe they haven’t quite figured out my preferences yet.

  2. Disclosures: I was in one of these meetings a couple of years ago. I also edited a 2013 Harvard Business Review article co-authored by Hoffman, then interviewed him about it for a LinkedIn webcast. I think I got a free catered lunch out of it.

  3. Yes, the New Yorker's vaunted copy editors missed this. It's wrong in the print edition too. I take this as a sign that the apocalypse is upon us.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net