I am a protectionist when it comes to my network, meaning I normally decline requests from people I have never met. While I might make an exception (say for the Dali Lama), I do this because when I reach out to someone in my network, or they reach out to me, I feel there is a level of expectation in the interaction. However, that is not to say all the connections in my network are equal. Actually, I categorize connections in my network into one of four types: Friends, Colleagues, Acquaintances and Strangers. Why is this important? Categories allow me to define my expectations as to what I might ask of someone in my network and what I would expect them to ask of me.
The category that provides least value to my network are those I call Strangers. These are people I have no prior connection with. We have never met face to face (or virtually), engaged in conversation or been introduced by someone I already know. The only thing I believe I owe someone in this category is simply some common courtesy – a polite e-mail thanking them for their time and letting them know where I stand on adding people I have no connection with to my network. The fact that they may be connected with someone I know on social media does not mean I will unquestioningly accept them into my network.
I don’t see how adding a stranger to my network contributes to the value I am looking for. Nor do I feel any obligation to accept an invitation from someone I have never met. If you answered a knock at your front door and the person standing there was someone you had never seen before, would you immediately invite them to come in? Probably not, but you wouldn’t just slam the door in their face either. I practice the same principle when a stranger reaches out and asks to join my network. Unless a mutual acquaintance speaks up, I politely decline the request (as politely as one can by e-mail). I would rather add someone I have actually met, even if only briefly, and these people make up my next category – Acquaintances.
Entrance into the next category requires two things – a common connection and some type of meeting (either real or virtual). Acquaintances are those people to whom I have been introduced at some point, perhaps a meeting, seminar, volunteer function, or online event. We share something in common as the basis for starting our connection – membership in an association, attendance at the same university, a volunteer activity or the same soccer team for our kids. I view these connections as informational relationships which, over time, can move into another category, but many will never progress beyond this category.
At the outset, however, add Acquaintances is more about meeting those people who share a common interest or activity to build relationships related to that interest or activity. I expect these relationships to focus on informational exchanges and discussions of our shared interest. Because of the common interest and having met (in some fashion), I believe there is a basis for a tiny bit of reciprocity in our relationship. I have no problem providing an introduction for an acquaintance, but I would not feel comfortable writing a letter of recommendation or asking for one. I don’t think the relationship is deep enough. Over time acquaintances can grow and move into one of the other categories, Colleagues or Friends, but they don’t have to.
While I have other categories, I find the categories of Strangers and Acquaintances cover most of my initial connections, particularly those on social media platforms. Since there are no hard and fast rules on how to build your network, I use these categories as a template in order to maintain the value of my network. While I might take a different view if I were a celebrity trying to expand my brand, I don’t see how adding quantity to my network helps me raise the value of the connections in my network. Rather, I believe that adding quantity to your network simply lowers the value of the connection, which in my case would mean the majority would simply remain strangers. For example, if I connected with someone with huge network (say Sir Richard Branson or Bill Gates), I do not believe they would treat the connection as a reciprocal one. Instead of connecting with everyone, I connect with those with whom I have an established base for the relationship. Over time, it becomes a network of value to both myself and those in my network.