Friday, February 11, 2011

LinkedIn's Challenge During Rapid Growth: Balancing Good, Bad, and Ignorant

Reid Hoffman Has Been Working Behind The Scene
To Make LinkedIn IPO a Success
As you might have heard, LinkedIn is moving in full speed ahead to go public. With added PR surrounding first social network site to file for IPO, the professional social networking site has been steadily picking up new users along the way. Last time I wrote about LinkedIn back in early October 2010, user base was around 80 million. Now there are reports suggesting that user base has climbed to 90 million as of early January 2011.

All these growth means good thing for both LinkedIn users and those who earn paycheck thinking about how to harness the power of social networking sites. But I am a little circumspect in accepting the rapid growth as all good news.

Here's why:

1. As social network site grows in popularity, there are going to be more inappropriate use of the network.

We've seen this many times. Back in early days of email, no one thought about securing email. As popularity of email soared, so did the unsolicited emails that we now call SPAM. We saw the similar phenomenon with Facebook. People creating multiple accounts to promote their products and services. That's because as network gets more connected, the network's value increases not linearly but much faster, attracting potential abusers to come join the network.

What I suspect with LinkedIn user base as with other popular social network site like Facebook and Twitter is that there is growing portion of abusers.

2. People don't read user agreement.

LinkedIn, just like any other social networking site, has rules against these behaviors. But the problem is that people are not aware of them.

One of common abuses which happens often as workaround to corporate policy of monitoring LinkedIn profile is that people create multiple LinkedIn accounts. One for personal use that you create with your personal email account, and another account for professional use to network while on the job. While this use case seems perfectly benign from end user perspective, this is explicitly prohibited by LinkedIn User Agreement.

If you bother to read their User Agreement, it states as following:

Service Eligibility.

To be eligible to use the Service, you must meet the following criteria and represent and warrant that you: (1) are 18 years of age or older; (2) are not currently restricted from the Services, or not otherwise prohibited from having a LinkedIn account, (3) are not a competitor of LinkedIn or are not using the Services for reasons that are in competition with LinkedIn; (4) will only maintain one LinkedIn account at any given time; (5) have full power and authority to enter into this Agreement and doing so will not violate any other agreement to which you are a party; (6) will not violate any rights of LinkedIn, including intellectual property rights such as copyright or trademark rights; and (7) agree to provide at your cost all equipment, software, and internet access necessary to use the Services.

The problem is that people don't read terms of use, myself included. When a security officer from one of our clients financial firm asked me about this LinkedIn policy, I couldn't decisively cite the line that prohibited multiple account creation. I had to go back and comb through 8-page long document to see it for myself.

Typical LinkedIn user reading up on User Agreement, and avoiding this on their own? I would rather bet on people driving 65mph on 101 after 10 o'clock at night.

3. LinkedIn is not ready to enforce these abuses, not just yet.

LinkedIn Has Built Growing Business On Top Of
Professional Social Network
So if LinkedIn is really serious about User Agreement, why don't they enforce it so that people find out about User Agreement? Well, LinkedIn could. But it is not really in their interest to do so.

Think about LinkedIn's interest. They are in business of connecting people, and expanding their network so that the aggregate value of network increases so that their stock can follow the early days of Google and these days of Apple. If LinkedIn starts to clamp down on these abusers, its going to report slower growth which would mean slower value add to network, not to mention creating distraction from building more services on top of the growing network.

But just like email SPAM protection and Facebook showing signs of enforcing shutting down fake accounts after Eric Schmidt impersonation on Facebook, in future LinkedIn will have to start addressing abusers too. But it would probably happen when there's high profile mishap like the one Facebook had because it has no immediate pain point for LinkedIn.

What do you think about LinkedIn as service? Do you have multiple LinkedIn accounts to get around corporate policy? Do you feel that one person one account rule is too restrictive on users' part?

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