Steven Burda, 27, says he can guess what you'll think about him at first. The former Soviet Union resident who now lives in a Philadelphia suburb has more than 34,000 immediate contacts (known as "connections") on LinkedIn, the online social network for professionals. "The perception is that someone like me must have too much time on my hands," he says. "I've heard that a few times." In fact, Burda is rated number four among the most-connected LinkedIn members — and belongs to a controversial group of LinkedIn users called open networkers. But dismissing him as an Internet eccentric would be wrong.
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Burda lives a busy, productive life, one that would make politicians touting the promise of the American dream gush during campaign rallies. The Ukrainian son of a dentist (father) and a mechanical engineer (mother), Burda and his family moved to the United States in the early 1990's. He earned an MBA from St. Joseph's University and speaks three languages fluently. He does financial planning for aerospace and defense giants like Boeing and Lockheed Martin. On the side, he started a non-profit to provide consulting to small businesses. He and his wife are expecting a baby boy any day now.
So why does Burda give LinkedIn — and fellow users of the service, many of whom he couldn't identify if they sat down next to him at a coffee shop — so much attention? Quite simply, he likes helping people.
"For me, it's a hobby and a passion," he says. "They call me the Mother Teresa of social networking. I help people find jobs or secure VC [venture capital] on LinkedIn. There are plenty of places that charge all this money to use their job tools, but I help people without seeking anything in return. I firmly believe the karma comes back to you eventually."
Burda's pay-it-forward philosophy is shared by his fellow "open networkers," an increasingly significant group of LinkedIn users who accept the majority of invitations to connect on LinkedIn, no matter whether they know the person or not. Open networkers also help other people connect with one another by introducing them online, even if they don't know either person in any personal or professional capacity. This approach runs counter to the wishes of LinkedIn, which publicly encourages people to connect only with people they know. During the past couple of years, LinkedIn has even taken measures within the design of the service to curtail the practice of open networking.
But the steady emergence of LinkedIn open networkers (frequently called LIONs) has implications for LinkedIn, its user base and the future of social networks in general. Analysts say banning or prohibiting open networkers would adversely affect average users who rely on LIONs to introduce them to prospective business associates and job opportunities. For LinkedIn as a company, open networkers complicate how the social network plans to make money selling premium accounts that give recruiters broader access to its network of 30 million professionals.
How LinkedIn Open Networkers (LIONs) Came to Be
LinkedIn, which launched in 2003, created an online environment conducive to open networking, much more so than its main competitor, Facebook. From the start, connecting with someone randomly on Facebook had more perils. Because contacts on Facebook (labeled as "Friends") share personal pictures, status messages and videos with one another, users tended to be more cautious about who they gave permission to view their pages. This feeling was bolstered as stories popped up regularly about people getting fired after their bosses discovered inappropriate content involving them on Facebook.
LinkedIn's profile pages, on the other hand, started — and remain — all business. Though LinkedIn recently gave users the option to add third-party applications from companies like Google and Amazon, a typical LinkedIn profile is still little more than an online resume with information that most people would feel comfortable posting on the public internet. LinkedIn generally doesn't prompt users to display personal information that can lead to identity theft, such as birth dates.
As a result, most people on LinkedIn also decide to keep their profiles publicly accessible, making it easier for future employers to find them.
"The LinkedIn profiles, due to their design, are just much cleaner than Facebook," says Jason Alba, CEO of Jibberjobber.com, a career management firm and author of the book I'm On LinkedIn — Now What?. "Random connections don't have as much of an immediate impact as it would on Facebook."
Like most nascent social networking sites, LinkedIn, in its early days, put few restrictions on its users. Many open networkers built huge connection lists. But in January, 2006, in response to substantial growth and to clarify its own vision for the service, the company made some changes.
LinkedIn limited users to sending out 3,000 invitations, lifetime. The site made some modifications to its profile pages, too. Prior to this time, LinkedIn profiles displayed how many connections people made. Under the new changes, if a person connected with more than 500 people, their public profile page would read "500+" rather than showing the total amount. Many open networkers during this time had already garnered thousands of connections.
Those two moves led to the creation of the LION group, which most people agree was officially founded by Christian Mayaud, a venture capitalist who believed firmly in open networking. He started a Yahoo groups site and many followed.
John Evans, another founding member and a UK-based consultant, estimates that today there are approximately 16,000 LION members. Thousands more adhere to similar principles without the official title. According to Evans, during the group's early days, LIONs believed the LinkedIn site changes were the social network's way of contending with explosive growth.
"They [LinkedIn] simply didn't have the money or resources to cope with the speed of growth and demand for support," Evans says. "So, it seemed, they tried to stop network growth and it was around this time that Super-Networkers, as they were once kindly dubbed, began to become pariahs. Wrongly or rightly, many felt that the restrictions were unnecessary and undesirable, and so the LIONs [were established]."
To continue growing their connection lists, LIONs circumvent LinkedIn's restrictions in a few ways. While the service placed the 3,000 limit on how many invitations users can send, it didn't place any cap on how many they can receive. In addition, if you want to connect with someone outside your immediate network, LinkedIn asks you for that person's e-mail address before you can send that person an invitation (a rule designed by LinkedIn to establish that you know the person in question). Since LinkedIn doesn't provide an e-mail field in its profile pages, many LIONs provide their e-mail address somewhere in their summary or biography sections, making it easy for strangers viewing their public profile to send them invitations to connect. While the LIONs don't require their members to do so, they'll accept almost all invitations.
Today, several members of LION, including Mayaud, Evans and Burda, can be tracked on toplinked.com, a site that lists the top 50 most connected people on LinkedIn.
Complicated Relationships Matter: Why LinkedIn and the LIONs Need Each Other
LinkedIn's main slogan is "Relationships Matter." This cuts to the core of the social network's philosophy and the way it designed the site: connect with people you know. That said, LinkedIn encourages some serendipitous discovery of people outside their immediate connections by second and third degrees of separation. For instance, two degrees away, people can see their connections of connections (think: friends of friends) and send them invitations to connect. In order to connect with people three degrees away (friends of friends of friends), users must get digitally "introduced" through mutual connections.
According to LinkedIn, a connections list reflects your reputation as a professional. If you connect with anyone and everyone, it's hard to keep track of contacts that populate your connections list. Presuming some of those connections are, even unknowingly to you, shady operators, it reflects badly upon you.
"Growing your LinkedIn ecosystem to reflect your real world business connections is critical since it defines the people you'd recommend and support, even if it means putting your professional reputation on the line," Patrick Crane, LinkedIn's VP of marketing, wrote in a blog post in November.
According to Alba of Jibberjobber.com, LinkedIn's defense of this strategy hasn't been without a few inconsistencies; LIONs might use even stronger language. For example, when new users sign up for a LinkedIn account, the service offers to troll their e-mail boxes to see if they have potential connections already on LinkedIn.
"LinkedIn says only connect with people you know and trust," Alba says. "But then it says, by the way, import all your Outlook and Gmail contacts. Many of those aren't close friends and business contacts."
Burda, who estimates that he can reach at least 90 percent of the LinkedIn network with his immediate connections and second and third degrees of separation, says he believes that LinkedIn's stance against open networking might stem from the fact open networkers cannibalize other revenue generating areas for the company.
While LinkedIn sells advertising to help subsidize the experience of free users, another significant revenue stream comes fromselling special premium accounts to recruiters, salespeople and other businesses interested in getting easier access to the 30 million professionals on the service. These value-added 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).
"LinkedIn could see someone like me as a threat or as eating into their revenue," Burda says. "I'm not a recruiter either. This is just my hobby."
According to Alba, LinkedIn and the LIONs have a complicated relationship. The LIONs need LinkedIn to build upon their network philosophy that more connections are better; LinkedIn needs LIONs because they are some of the service's most enthusiastic promoters.
"I haven't seen LinkedIn take a stand, or a strong stand, on this," Alba says. "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."
LinkedIn doesn't mind acknowledging the existence of LIONs, but the company remains unwavering in its own networking philosophy.
"My comments in regards to the LIONs are very similar to what we have said (in the past)," says Krista Canfield, a LinkedIn spokeswoman. "We always advocate that our users only connect and add people to their network that they know and trust."
In Defense of Open Networking
During a recession, most people wouldn't want to be in the situation Todd Herschberg now finds himself. Recently, he worked on a contract basis as a marketing consultant to help drive web traffic to Like.com, an e-commerce retail site. By his co-workers accounts, he did a good job — his efforts increased traffic to the site and fattened the company's revenue. But the contract expired and he is now without a job in the worst economic climate since the Great Depression.
But Herschberg has something on his side: he's a LION. With more than 16,000 connections, according to TopLinked.com, he is the 45th most connected person on LinkedIn. He has already received inquires for new gigs.
"My phone has been ringing pretty steadily," Herschberg says. "You never know where your next opportunity will come from. I have, over the years, been contacted by people who I never would have come in contact with if it hadn't been for LinkedIn. No, I don't know of all of them. But we come across thousands of people over the course of our careers."
Herschberg adheres to some typical LION principles: with few exceptions (mostly spam), he accepts all invitations to connect. Herschberg also serves another role on the network: he introduces disparate strangers looking to connect. He admits that bridging two connections works better when he knows the two people involved. He also notes you must watch out for bad actors.
"Some open networkers are just name collectors or they just market [products] to people," Herschberg says. "But for many of us, the 'paying it forward' is what's most important and why we do it."
Burda, for his part, doesn't just connect people in one vertical industry sector. He doesn't care if you have 25 connections or 2,500. On his LinkedIn profile page, hotel managers, consultants, accountants, CEOs, bankers, auditors, and IT managers sing his praises, with recommendations thanking him for his help.
Edwin Thomas, an Indianapolis-area health care strategist, summed it up for the cynics on a recommendation he posted to Burda's profile.
"Steven is everything he claims," he wrote. "I asked Steven for a connection to a very senior level executive at a leading health care plan. In a matter of minutes, Steven responded with 'I will help you.' First thing the next morning, Steven's message to me said, 'Done.' He is genuine."
Despite the LIONs' differences in networking philosophy with LinkedIn, Burda hopes the two groups can get along. He talks about the social network's future with great passion, noting the likelihood of an IPO and future growth.
"People sometimes think 'open networker' means you're a spammer," he says. "But for me, that's not true. I value my people and value my connections. There are bad apples who come in, sure, but in general people often just want to help each other. It makes me feel great about what I'm doing."