Online networking: If I don’t know you, why should I respond to your request?

Like many entrepreneurs, I am increasingly ambivalent about electronic communications. I use them every day in my business activities. But I am also buried by inbound communications from strangers wanting me to do something for them. I hate being rude, but I can’t keep up. This week I had the moment that made me ask if I am really obligated to try.

I took at a look at my LinkedIn page and noted the many unsolicited connection requests I get, and how many of them suggest meeting for coffee so the sender can “pick my brain.” The commonalities in approach and tone struck me as orchestrated and formulaic. Well, a quick Google search revealed that they most likely were both of those things.

I was astounded by the number of self-proclaimed experts who offer advice on how to write emails that will be answered, how to use LinkedIn to get a meeting to find the next job and generally how to use social media or email to get a business benefit from a stranger you perceive as useful. The experts assert that most people hate to to be rude so they are likely to respond to an unsolicited communication if it sounds friendly. So, they advise taking advantage of people’s better natures to get them to respond to what they might otherwise immediately dismiss as junk mail.

Was my desire to be a good person being used against me as a tool for someone else’s business development?

I reached out to a broad group of entrepreneurs (I knew them all personally, I promise!) to ask them about my reaction. They told me they were often in the same position and that I should stop feeling bad about not responding to everyone who sent me a message. Janet Van Pelt, chief executive of CourseMaven, an educational software business, put it succinctly: a stranger cannot unilaterally create an affirmative obligation for you to respond.

Moreover, they all felt it was OK for me to consider these requests annoying, since we all earned our livings from personal expertise and our networks. My entrepreneur friends told me they viewed most networking and advice-seeking messages with suspicion as just thinly veiled attempts to get something valuable for free. A few considered such requests presumptuous.

But what about people who are legitimately trying to meet with me to start an exchange of mutual value? My colleagues suggested that they tended to filter messages by whether the sender was referred from an existing relationship of trust or whether the sender’s personal circumstances resonated in some way. Sid Banerjee, founder and viceChairman of Clarabridge, a data analytics firm, captured the consensus view, saying “if they’re introduced through someone I know and care about – I’ll consider it. Otherwise, it has to be interesting to me or I ignore.”

At the end of my conversations, I ended up feeling somewhat better. There was a clear differentiation to be made between acceptable behavior in the real world and online. I would never ignore a polite approach from a stranger on the street or at an event, even if I would ultimately say “thank you, but I am not interested.” Yet that level of courtesy is apparently unnecessary online.

Still, this left me with a nagging question: how did we get to a point where a person’s desire to be open to new relationships and opportunities is overwhelmed by a constant stream of electronic requests. I suppose one could take the view – “Oh poor you, that’s the price of being in the public eye.” But I think that misses the point.

We have seen how the ease of electronic communication has cheapened and devalued information so that the value of facts has been undermined. I think that a similar thing has happened to making new contacts to expand personal opportunities. I am sure that some of the many requests that I receive are from people I would ordinarily like to meet, but there are just too many requests for me to spend the time to figure it out. I am another casualty in an arms race for attention.

I expect that this cycle will mean that broadly available online networks will eventually be of little use in establishing meaningful connections. I am not sure whether this will result in an online sea of software bots talking to each other while those of us with things to do are otherwise engaged or a return to making connections by engaging in long term and valuable relationships.

But in the meantime, don’t expect a networking response from me online if I don’t know you. I feel bad about that, but apparently, it’s the only reasonable thing to do.

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