How Many Friends Do You Need?

    December 21, 2006

If you have too many friends, you have no friends, the great architect I.M. Pei once told me. His opinion clearly isn’t shared by Marc Freedman, who describes himself as the “LinkDaddy” of the LinkedIn network.

Freedman numbers more than 17,000 connections among his intimates although it isn’t clear from looking at his profile why he needs so many friends and even that he has benefitted materially from all these promiscuous associations. (Memo to Marc: People who describe themselves as “visionary” in their resumes almost never are.)

The seeming compulsion of “linksluts,” as Valleywag calls them, to build giant networks of distant contacts raises an interesting question: how big does a social network need to be before it delivers tangible benefits? The answer, I suspect, is that it depends on what “benefits” you’re hoping to get and who is in your network.

Headhunters need a lot of names so a service like LinkedIn is a treasure trove. Sales reps also benefit from being able to find contacts who work in target companies. For most others, a barebones introduction service is fairly useless. Asking a stranger to introduce you to a stranger is a pretty long shot.

What wholesale social networks like LinkedIn lack most is sociability. Exchanging business cards is not the same thing as building relationships. For making friendships that count and finding business contacts that pay off, small, targeted e-mail discussion groups and blogs are far more effective.

About 10 years ago, before I ever heard the term social networking, I started an e-mail group called the Ancient Thespians which is made up of men about my own age-writers, photographers, business consultants, editors-that I had met over a 20 year period of traveling and working around the world. Many were people I had met only once or twice but had liked and wanted to stay in touch with but found impossible to do so on a one-to-one basis.

From that core of about 30 people have come most of my best friends, although they are scattered around the world. We’ve exchanged more than 15,000 e-mails and even had a face-to-face “reunion” in Jackson Hole. Great people that I might never have seen again are now part of my life on a daily basis through the miracle of e-mail. You can’t find this level of life-enhancing connection on LinkedIn.

The story is pretty much the same when it comes to business connections. As it turns out, the new job that Rod Boothby’s blog got him is with Teqlo, a startup headed by Jeff Nolan. Both knew each other first through their blogs and then connected through the Enterprise Irregulars’ small (about 25 people) but very active back channel e-mail group and that has now become a real-life working relationship. You can’t make this kind of deep connection by simply getting access to someone’s e-mail address or phone number.

As Zoli puts it: The Blog is the New Resume. Or, to put it another way, blogs and good discussion groups are the beginnings of committed relationships, LinkedIn and its ilk are networking one-night stands.


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Jerry Bowles has more than 30 years of varied experience as a writer, editor, marketing consultant, corporate communications director and blogger. For the past 20 years, he has produced and written special supplements on new technologies for a number of magazines, including Forbes, Fortune and Newsweek.