LinkedIn and creepy connections

LinkedIn is increasingly being used by small and medium-size businesses for marketing, recruiting, and networking. I’ll give you a bit of background in case you’re not familiar with LinkedIn, then point out one of its features that can seem creepy if you’re not expecting it.

“Connections” are at the heart of LinkedIn – the people that you know and become “connected” to, and the threads that might lead to someone helpful or some useful information. It’s similar in concept to Facebook “friends,” but LinkedIn is aimed exclusively at professionals and businesses. Employees at big companies can use it to get background information about colleagues in their own company or prepare for meetings with people at other companies, and recruiters can use it to find candidates for job openings.

As time went on, LinkedIn tried to find more ways to provide value. It has added editorial content and tried to make it more attractive for users to add their own content. Even more successfully, it added a feature last year that allows you to “endorse” someone for their skills with a single click. It’s completely frictionless – suggestions appear on the LinkedIn page for you to endorse a friend or colleague with a single click, no thought required. It’s just a professional version of “liking” something on Facebook, and yet it’s hard to resist sending a few endorsements out when you go by the LinkedIn page. Here’s a thorough explanation of LinkedIn endorsements. Interesting question for lawyers: if you get an unsolicited endorsement that is false or misleading, do you have an ethical duty to remove it? Opinions are mixed.

In the last year or so, interest in LinkedIn has sharply increased in small businesses anxious to increase their online presence. It’s growing by leaps and bounds – almost 100 million members in the US, 200 million users worldwide. It’s achieved the recognition that causes businesses and employees to sign up even if they’re a little vague about what it might do for them, because the pressure is on every business to do something online and LinkedIn makes it relatively easy to get started.

The creepy part happens when LinkedIn suggests possible connections. Like Facebook, LinkedIn presents a list of possibilities, “People You May Know,” with a name and a picture and a few words chosen by each member to describe themselves. If you’re like most people, you’ll look at that list and see some people you know, a few complete strangers – and a few people that LinkedIn simply has no business suggesting, because there’s no way for LinkedIn to know about your connection to them.

Here’s an article by a blogger who found LinkedIn suggestions of someone who shared the name of a high school girlfriend, as well as his cousin and someone who follows him on Twitter but with whom he has no other connection. I see my wife’s sister, a woman who landscaped my back yard twenty years ago, and the preschool teacher for my sons.

How does it know?

The blogger came up with some theories about LinkedIn but no definitive answers. As it turns out, I looked into exactly the same question two years ago for Facebook and its friend suggestions, and came up with some theories but no definitive answers. Think of it as an introduction to the world of Big Data, where connections can be found if you dig hard enough into many different sources of information. It’s a small scale, personal example of the type of analysis that the government is doing in the PRISM program and its other data-gathering operations.

Some of it is what you’d expect, people from your town or your high school or your college, people from Facebook or Twitter if you gave LinkedIn access to those accounts, or people connected to other people who work at your business. Do a search for someone and you might see suggestions later of people connected to your search target. If someone searches for you, you’ll see that person’s connections offered to you as possible matches. Use LinkedIn to send a message and LinkedIn will remember the recipients and start to offer possible connections to the sender and the recipients and everyone connected to them.

One likely source of data comes from address books, and maybe not yours. Like Facebook, LinkedIn encourages you to give it access to your address book. If you turn it down, LinkedIn presumably honors that request and leaves your contact list alone. But look at it from the other direction: other people who might have you in their address books might allow their address book to be uploaded to LinkedIn. LinkedIn stores that fact in its data banks and you may start to see the people in that other person’s address book – just in case.

The suggestions from LinkedIn of “People You May Know” will always include a healthy proportion of people who do not register because they are complete strangers. Our eyes are caught by the familiar names and we forget about the misses. LinkedIn is not psychic and it’s not searching your computer in some underhanded way. It’s just doing heavy data analysis, constantly trying to get to the point that it knows your connections better than you do.

Interesting world, isn’t it? Try to get past the creepiness. Supply accurate information when you’re online, don’t open up your records unnecessarily (I would never upload my address book), and don’t be surprised when the advertisers and the online services and the government are able to put together a profile about you with high accuracy. That’s what it means to live in a digital world.

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