LinkedIn has quietly clamped down on a controversial association known as the LinkedIn open networkers (LIONs), a group of LinkedIn members who liberally add contacts — known on LinkedIn as "connections" — even if they don't know each of the people personally. The group's strategy runs counter to LinkedIn's official policy, which states that LinkedIn members should only connect with people they know .
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In the recent development, some LIONs have received messages saying that they have exceeded a newly imposed connection limit of 30,000.LION members say they have pending "invitations to connect" that they cannot accept as a result of the restriction. An unofficial site known as the TopLinked.com tracks the connection counts of many LIONs.
The decision to place more restrictions on the LIONs comes several weeks after CIO.com profiled LinkedIn open networks and the group's history. In the article, LIONs were described, at their best, as helping disparate strangers connect on the service, ideally leading to new jobs or business opportunities. At their worst, they are described by critics as name collectors looking to leverage their connection lists to spam unwitting members.
One of the members profiled in that story was Steven Burda, a financial planner who says he has approximately 40,000 connections now. As mentioned in the earlier story, he has been known to help strangers connect over the service and, as evidenced by recommendations on his profile from people all over the country, has helped some foster new business as a result.
At the time, Burda expressed worries that his pay-it-forward mentality might be seen as cannibalizing one of LinkedIn's revenue opportunities: selling premium accounts to individuals, recruiters and companies looking to get access to search and cull through a wider portion of the network.
Now, he thinks that fear has come to pass.
"I don't think that, I know that," he says. "LinkedIn will go public at some point. The way they make money is to say, 'hey, I'm not connected to Steven Burda, so pay LinkedIn twenty bucks or whatever to connect you with him."
Krista Canfield, a LinkedIn spokeswoman, said the company wouldn't comment on any LION or super-connected user specifically, but said any changes to LinkedIn's service, including its search capabilities, will not affect normal users.
LIONs like Burda have also seen their reach of the LinkedIn network shrink.
Regular users of LinkedIn who use the free version of the service can search and access a portion of social network's 34 million members based on their connection count. There are their immediate connections, second degree contacts (friends of friends), and third degree contacts, people whom you can get introduced (and connect with) by the aid of being introduced by a mutual connection. These three categories in total will determine how much of the LinkedIn network the users can search for (without paying LinkedIn for wide access).
Before the article about LIONs on CIO.com, Burda says that number was 27 million for him. As he added connections in the following weeks, he said his network size actually shrunk to 12 million.
Bill Howell, senior vice president and CIO of Accellent (a medical components company), is a LION and has also seen the restriction leveled on to him. He says that with the down economy, the type of restriction seems especially draconian.
"This is very regrettable," he wrote CIO in an e-mail. "Just last Sunday I did a presentation to unemployed workers on the benefits of using LinkedIn and I advised all of them to connect to me and I would help them get jobs. Now none of them can connect to me. Gee, now isn't that an interesting message."
The decision to punish LinkedIn open networkers won't be without consequence as the group and the service have a unique relationship. In the recent feature about the group, Jason Alba, president of JibberJobber.com and author of the book I'm on LinkedIn — Now What?, noted that while their network philosophy runs counter to that of LinkedIn, the LIONs have some upsides for the service as well.
"I haven't seen LinkedIn take a stand, or a strong stand, on this," Alba said at the time. "Many of the open networkers are actually helping LinkedIn grow, since they are such passionate evangelists. I'm guessing this is a topic that LinkedIn is just going to be silent on, for now."
But LinkedIn has taken quiet steps to temper their influence on the service in the past. On the profile pages of LinkedIn, the service will only list a person's connection size as "500+" to discourage the practice of connection counting. They have levied a limit on how many invitations someone can send to connect (3,000).
The selling of premium accounts does represent a way in which LinkedIn has diversified its business away from merely advertising, which its competitors such as Facebook have relied heavily on to build a business.
These services include increased search results and the ability to send "InMails," which allow you to contact not only your second and third degree contacts, but also people outside your network. LinkedIn's "business plus plan" runs for $50 per month (or $500 for the year), and its "corporate solutions" plan lets companies buy multiple accounts with premium services and access to LinkedIn (prices aren't provided on LinkedIn's website).
"Although we don't take away Linkedin's business, we do, indirectly, do things for free what others would be more than willing and able to pay for to Linkedin Corporation," Burda wrote CIO in an e-mail over the weekend. "Thus Linkedin views us select few as a big, big, big threat to their bottom line now, and especially in the future. They would do anything to kick us off their site. If only they found a legal reason to do so."