LinkedIn’s Weak Link

On balance, most people would agree that the LinkedIn social media platform has been a positive development in the field of business. Until LinkedIn came along, often it was quite challenging to make and nurture connections with like-minded industry or professional colleagues, or to find relevant contacts deep within corporations or other organizations.

I’m old enough to remember the “bad old days” of fruitless searches through the Corporate Yellow Book, Hoover’s and Dun & Bradstreet mercantile listings to try to find good company contacts. Often the information was far too “upper-level,” out-of-date, or simply wrong.  Industry, state and regional directory listings were even worse.

Invariably, any data ferreted out needed to be vetted through phone calls made to beleaguered front-office receptionists who were understandably disinclined to spend much time being helpful.

Of course, as with Wikipedia all LinkedIn “data” is submitted information, and subject to varying degrees of accuracy. As well, the data are comprehensive and accurate only to the degree that each LinkedIn member keeps his or her employment and related information current and complete.

But as a crowd-sourcing database of information – and often with “deep-dive” data on members available to view – LinkedIn is miles ahead of where we were before.

That being said, there is one negative aspect about LinkedIn that seems to have become more pronounced over time — and that’s the burgeoning volume of LinkedIn connection requests that are happening.

Speaking for myself, I’ve spent an entire career nurturing my business relationships. That this has resulted in being one of the LinkedIn members who are in the “500+ connections” club speaks to a lifetime of establishing “real” connections with “real” people – not mindlessly sending out connection solicitations to just anyone.

But that’s what’s happening with many of the incoming requests-to-connect on LinkedIn. These days, I’m receiving requests daily from people I do not know personally and have never even heard of before.

These are the folks who take advantage of LinkedIn’s higher cost”premium membership” programs to gain access to the more detailed information contained in member profiles that is normally off-limits to all except first-degree connections.

In what ways are these people actually interested in connecting with me?  Are they simply sending out a rash of “spray-and-pray” requests in the hopes of getting a nibble … or perhaps making an effort to build their own network and look more like an “authority” in their line of work?

When I click through to view the profiles of those people requesting to connect, it turns out that most them are in fields that relate to my line of work, however tangentially. Likely they’ve identified my name based on shared professional organizations and vocational interests.

But their reasons for requesting to connect — if they even bother to give one — are so generic (or so lame) as to be laughable.

Early on, I did a bit of “empirical” research to see how a few of these connections might actually evolve after I accepted their request to connect. Big mistake, that was.  Recently, freelance copywriter extraordinaire Ed Gandia described something very similar about his own personal LinkedIn experience, characterizing the typical follow-up communiqué from a new LinkedIn connection as “the business equivalent of a marriage proposal” – to wit:

“I’d like to get on the phone with you about [marrying me/having kids/opening a joint bank account]. Here are three times I’m available to talk.  I’m so excited to hear what you can offer me as [my new husband].”

If ever we needed reminding about how not to engage in business development solicitations, these sorry LinkedIn communications are it.

The bright promise of LinkedIn is the ability to identify people with whom we can potentially work or collaborate.  In that regard, the platform can be very valuable.  It’s just too bad that so many people are now using it for ill-conceived (or perhaps desperate?) shotgun attempts to sell themselves, their products or their services.

It won’t work. Communications technology may have evolved but some fundamental things never change.  At the top of the list:  No one wants to be pestered by unsolicited pitches for products, consulting services, employment opportunities and the like.  Not then, not now, not ever.

Hopefully, LinkedIn can calibrate its business practices to ensure that the benefits of interacting with the social platform always outweigh the detriments. We all recognize that this is one way LinkedIn can monetize the data that’s valuable housed on its platform.  But LinkedIn needs to get this just right, lest they turn off their most consequential members – or worse, drive them away.

Wikipedia vs. the Church of Scientology

Wikipedia vs. ScientologyI’ve blogged before about Wikipedia phenomenon and how it’s completely taken over the realm of encyclopedic knowledge in the span of only a decade.

One of the central tenets of Wikipedia is that it’s an open and inclusive environment where anyone can post an article or edit article entries.  But it’s also a self-policing environment where “the wisdom of crowds” ensures that inaccurate or spurious information is quickly removed and replaced with corrected entries.

With such a free and open environment, it comes as no surprise that certain topics can engender passionate debate and create some highly interesting “fireworks.”

Once such example is the Wikipedia entry on Charles Bennison, the embattled Episcopal Bishop of Pennsylvania whose social and financial controversies have been wide-ranging. For months on end, dueling article entries made by Wikipedia posters and countered by the Bishop’s own partisans made for a morbidly fascinating tit-for-tat spectacle.

Or consider Wikipedia’s article entry on President Barack Obama, which at times has undergone literally minute-by-minute edits frantically posted by dueling editors during high-profile episodes such as the birth certificate controversy — a kind of editorial ping-pong match.

But never has Wikipedia stepped in as an organization and done what it did this past week: It has actually banned the Church of Scientology from editing any articles appearing on Wikipedia that are associated with the religion.

This unprecedented action was reportedly taken in response to “repeated and deceptive editing” of Wikipedia articles related to Scientology and its beliefs.

And according to the news reports, the vote wasn’t even close; Wikipedia’s arbitration council voted 10-1 to ban users coming from any and all IP addresses owned by the Church of Scientology and its associates, along banning with certain individuals by name.

The Scientology case has been under review by Wikipedia since last December. It centers on more than 400 articles about the religious organization and its members. These articles have been the source of fierce “edit wars” pitting organized Church of Scientology editors against the religion’s detractors.

As a measure of how heated this issue has been for Wikipedia, this was actually the fourth arbitration case concerning the Church of Scientology occurring within the past four years.

To the casual observer, the whole Church of Scientology issue is a tempest in a teapot that could be summed up by the title of William Shakespeare’s famous play, Much Ado about Nothing.

But the fervor in which Scientology’s promoters and its critics have battled each other tooth and nail over the content of the Wikipedia article entries proves the rule once again that politics and religion are among the most passionate subjects in the world.

But the Scientology fracas also makes another point: Wikipedia is now the most important information repository in the world. Otherwise, why would there be such a fuss?

So the stakes are high … and tempers are high.

Here’s a prediction: Despite the unprecedented ban by Wikipedia’s arbitration council, the Scientology “edit wars” are far from over.  These folks are relentless.

An About-Face on Facebook?

Facebook logoThis past week, social networking site Facebook trumpeted the fact that is signed up its 500 millionth member. That’s an impressive statistic — and all the more so when you realize that Facebook had only about 100 million registrants just two short years ago.

And the site is truly international these days, with ~70% of Facebook users living someplace other than the USA.

But there are some interesting rumblings in cyberspace these days that suggest the bloom may be off the rose for Facebook. After having climbed to the #1 perch in terms of registrations and site traffic, there are some intriguing new signs that all is not well in Farmville – or elsewhere in the land of Facebook.

Inside Facebook, an independent research entity that tracks the Facebook platform for developers and marketers, is reporting new Facebook registrations dropped in June to ~250,000. That may still seem like a lot of people, but it’s a far cry from the ~7.7 million new registrants in May.

Furthermore, looking at age demographics, Inside Facebook has concluded that in the critical 26-34 age group, the total number of U.S. users active on Facebook actually declined during the month of June.

Are these people being swayed by the privacy debate that’s happening concerning how much visibility Facebook postings are being given on Google and other search engines?

That may be one explanation for the decline, but there could be other forces at work as well. The latest American Customer Satisfaction Index report from ForeSee Results, a web research and consulting firm, places Facebook’s ranking near dead-last on a list of 30 major online web sites in terms of customer satisfaction with site design and utility.

Who scored highest? Dowdy old Wikipedia. Even boring government sites like the IRS scored better.

It’s evident the issue goes far beyond privacy concerns. There’s also confusion or irritation with Facebook’s ever-changing user interface. As Aaron Shapiro wrote recently in Media Post’s Online Media Daily:

“The truth is, Facebook isn’t fun to use anymore. It’s become a chore, just one more place that busy people have to log in to stay up-to-date. And Facebook is making the goal of staying up-to-date harder and harder to achieve. There are so many apps like Farmville producing status updates, as well as people using Facebook as their repository for passing thoughts and private/public conversations, I have to sort through tons of what I don’t want to read before I get to something I want or need to know.”

Back in its early days, the beauty of Facebook was that it provided such an easy framework to stay connected with family and friends. It was a way to share photos and other personal information quickly – and almost effortlessly – with far-flung contacts all over the world.

Those attributes seem to have gotten buried in all of the “spammy” hi-jinks and gimmicks that characterize so much of today’s Facebook.

Considering the growing dissatisfaction with Facebook, ranging from things like privacy (mis)management and ubiquitous advertising to confusion with the site’s ever-changing design and irritating lack of utility, some industry watchers are predicting that users will begin seriously looking at alternatives. Despite Facebook’s huge presence and large pool of registrants, they may find simpler, purer sites out there that are more to their liking. Several that could be beneficiaries of the “Facebook fall-off” are Diaspora and Collegiate Nation.

Not All is Well in the World of Wikipedia

A few months ago, I blogged about “Wikipedians” – the hordes of people around the world who write and edit for the online encyclopedia sensation. In the “free information” world of the Internet, in just a few short years Wikipedia has effectively knocked the more traditional encyclopedias like World Book and Britannica off of their perch as the denizens and purveyors of broad knowledge.

With its self-described goal to be “the sum of all human knowledge,” Wikipedia has become the world’s fifth most popular web site, attracting more than 325 million visits per month – a 20% increase in traffic from a year ago. All this success, even as there have been well-publicized incidences of “rogue” information incorporated into Wikipedia article entries, either through honest error or deliberate insertions of false material; the report on Ted Kennedy’s Wikipedia entry of the senator’s death months before its actual occurrence is but one recent example.

Indeed, among the strengths of Wikipedia’s information model has been the idea of crowd-sourcing, with its legions of editors who have kept an eagle eye on Wikipedia entries to police them and aggressively remove incorrect, non-cited or otherwise suspect information.

But just last week, The Wall Street Journal published a front-page story reporting that Wikipedia is losing its volunteer force at a much steeper rate than ever before. Writers and editors have been departing Wikipedia faster than new ones joining – and the net decline has become particularly pronounced in 2009, to the tune of a net loss ~25,000 editor volunteers every month.

What’s causing this? A few reasons that have been suggested are:

As Wikipedia has grown, the number of topics not yet covered has diminished, making for fewer opportunities for new writers and editors to come on board with entries or to improve on existing articles.

Well-publicized problems with the veracity of some articles have caused Wikipedia to tighten its editorial and submission guidelines. The not-for-profit Wikipedia Foundation has adopted a plethora of rules (spelled out over dozens of web pages) that make it much harder for editors who are less familiar with the software to successfully post new stories – causing some articles to be removed within mere hours of being posted. It’s no secret that the burnout rate for writers is going to be higher when they have to continually debate and defend the content and format of their articles.

A reduction in the “passion” factor – Wikipedians are a bit of a different breed, driven as much by altruism as a generous dose of ego (“I’m better than the rest of you”) when it comes to information knowledge. They’ve even created their own special social world, with the Wikipedia Foundation hosting annual get-togethers of volunteers in such exotic locales as Buenos Aires where they can collectively bask in the aura of their shared “specialness.” But, people being people, over time the thrill abates except for the most passionate contributors.

The downturn in the economy probably doesn’t help, either. More free time might be available to devote to Wikipedia for those newly out of work … but in such times, more attention and effort is understandably going to be placed elsewhere.

Recognizing the need to reverse recent trends, the Wikipedia Foundation is working on creating streamlined instructions to help novice editors contribute articles that adhere to the proper submission guidelines more successfully. It is also working to actively recruit writers and editors from the scientific community, a historically soft spot in terms of Wikipedia’s information coverage.

Whether these steps will be enough to make a difference is an open question. Encouraging more volunteers from the world of science for what is essentially a volunteer mission with little or no peer recognition has been (and likely will continue to be) a tall order. And the jury is still out on the potential effectiveness of the new streamlined submission guidelines, because they haven’t been put into practice yet.

Still, there’s no denying that Wikipedia has had a major impact on the way people research information … and it has accomplished this over the span of only a few short years.

Who are ‘Wikipedians’ … and what makes them tick?

Wikipedia logoBy now, most web surfers have had first-hand experience with Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia to which anyone can contribute. As a quick resource for gaining knowledge, it’s hard to beat; it’s fast,and it’s comprehensive.

Speaking personally, fewer than 10% of my queries on Wikipedia come back empty. So I find it a great resource for getting a quick handle on most any topic.

Of course, it would be unwise to consider Wikipedia an unimpeachable resource because its content is not vetted in the traditional way. Volunteers author the articles, and it’s up to the community of Wikipedia readers to call out and correct errors or omissions to the entries.

Just who are these volunteers, and what motivates them to devote time to Wikipedia? As it turns out, while there’s no pay, there’s a strong mixture of altruism and ego gratification associated with being a Wikipedia contributor.

This is borne out in an international research survey conducted jointly by the Wikimedia Foundation (the not-for-profit group that operates Wikipedia) and United Nations University’s MERIT tech research project. A whopping 175,000 responses were collected. Of these, approximately one third reported that they contribute Wikipedia content in addition to consuming it.

So what makes those people want to become a Wikipedia contributor? Three-fourths of them agreed with the statement that they “like the idea of sharing knowledge and want to contribute to it.” Two-thirds also reported that they “saw an error I wanted to fix.” Nearly half would contribute more often “if I knew there were specific topic areas that needed my help.”

The survey also uncovered some fascinating demographic statistics regarding Wikipedia contributors. It comes as no real surprise that the median age of Wikipedia contributors is in the mid- to upper-twenties … or that one-fourth of them have post-graduate degrees.

But the gender breakdown is curious. In fact, the survey found that only 13% of Wikipedia contributors are women – a startling finding. And even among those who have edited others’ entries rather than contributing full articles of their own, only 31% are women. The researchers steered clear of suggesting any reasons for the gender skew, which was more than likely a cop-out.

And what are the reasons why people don’t contribute to Wikipedia? Predictably, “time constraints” were cited by many respondents. Another factor cited was not knowing how to create or edit the Wikipedia pages. But a substantial percentage (~25%) cited being fearful of making a mistake and “getting in trouble” for it.

So one takeaway from the survey is that it takes certain traits to be a Wikipedia contributor — like being a self-proclaimed “informed expert” looking for validation, affirmation and recognition … or even being narcissistic?

Come to think of it, perhaps it’s not so surprising after all that Wikipedia contributors are over 85% male!