LinkedIn's fate is tied into not just the quantity of data it collects from its users, but also the quality. The quantity is there: The site boasts more than 100 million users. But the important question is how many of those users actively access the site, keep their professional information up to date, share links, participate in discussions, and generally engage with their peers?
The reality is that if most users create an account one day, add a couple of connections, then never come back, the data they've provided doesn't have much value to third parties. The experience for other users becomes boring to the point that they, too, jump ship. LinkedIn may have work to do to keep users interested and involved if it's going to meet investors' and users' expectations.
In a straw poll of some of InfoWorld's contributors -- most of whom are IT professionals -- and others in my professional and social circles, I found that most respondents are members of LinkedIn but rarely or never use the site. The reason: They don't see any value. The exception seemed to be job hunters, recruiters, and consultants. (Notably, I attempted to solicit feedback on the subject from peers via Facebook, email, and LinkedIn. The last option yielded zero responses.)
InfoWorld contributor and professional developer Peter Wayner had this to say about LinkedIn: "It's sure cool and it's fun to look at hierarchies, but I've never had much luck with using it for more than idle curiosity."
Insofar as yielding any kind of professional benefit, Wayner shared this anecdote: "As an experiment, I once tried to follow a chain of so-called friends to get a meeting with someone. The first link in the chain clearly thought that the request was a bit odd and maybe inappropriate. He scrutinized my documents and asked lots of questions. Then he denied having the contact that I could plainly see on LinkedIn. Maybe he wasn't getting in the spirit of things, maybe he was just being smart, but he was so cautious that I've never bothered using the technique again."
Similarly, tech journalist Dan Tynan said that LinkedIn hasn't proved to be particularly useful. He said it can be an effective tool for doing background research, such as grabbing titles or job affiliations, although "you can never really trust that someone has kept his/her profile up to date."
As for finding sources for information, Tynan said, "I occasionally post questions to LinkedIn folks, though I usually don't get too many answers." Further, he said that finding people is difficult because of lackluster search, "especially if they have a common name and you don't know much else about them."
Another thread among the professionals I polled is that LinkedIn can be more of a nuisance than a benefit if you're not actively looking for work. Windows pro Peter Bruzzese, who visits the site about once a month, said he doesn't like being nagged to respond to connection requests. "I feel like [LinkedIn] is a great tool when you are looking for work, but not when you are swamped with work. I think there has to be a way to tailor the amount it bugs you. Or to say, 'I'm not making any new connections right now!'"
Similarly, Tom Maddox, a senior network administrator at Mellon Capital Management, said he hasn't actively used the site in some four years: "I don't use the social media aspects of it at all, and I haven't updated my profile in quite some time. Basically, I keep my LinkedIn connections for the referral potential in the event that I need to look for work."
David Linthicum, consultant and CTO of Blue Mountain Labs, had a much more positive spin on LinkedIn. He uses the site several times a day to "get the 411 on people I may want to work with, may want to hire, may want to network with. Most people in IT have LinkedIn profiles, and you can understand a lot about them from their profile."
He has a problem with the site, though: "I get many people asking me to join their network that turn out to be spammers. You have to be careful whom you accept."
Another drawback, or perhaps a double-edged sword, is that his LinkedIn groups have become too active. "I get about 50 updates a day in my inbox. I've been sending them to junk mail."
Linthicum's wish for LinkedIn is to see "some type of social network profile of each connection, perhaps reaching out to their Twitter and Facebook accounts, such as you can get from third-party analyst tools."
The bottom line here is that LinkedIn needs to be careful that it doesn't turn into a wanna-be Facebook, playing fast and loose with user data while not giving a sufficient reason for users to join up and stick around to provide that data in the first place.
Based on all the people who have signed up with LinkedIn, there must be some demand for a professional social network, a place for networking, collaboration, brainstorming, idea-sharing, finding resources, and the like. But if the site is going to simply be a place where professionals get nothing but sales pitches, unsolicited job offers, and a Facebook-esque feed in exchange for their valuable data (and time), they have no reason to stick around.
This article, "Don't see the value in LinkedIn? You're not alone," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.