The idea of “suggested people to follow” isn’t anything new in the world of social networking. Twitter has had such a feature for a long, long time, though it infamously was so broad and overly populated with celebrities that it didn’t have much value for the power user. Eventually it was replaced by something that was more tailored toward an individual’s interest and has generally gone through a series of iterations as the service looks to solve the elusive “discoverability” question. And Facebook is always suggesting people you might know but who you haven’t connected with yet, even if that person passed away years ago.
LinkedIn had something similar, though it was moderately more useful since it was generally based on your previous or current employment. But the functionality was different since you don’t really “follow” those people in the same way you do elsewhere. It wind up looking vaguely the same – you see what their activity, either in terms of update publishing or further network connections, is – but it wasn’t quite the same thing.
Now, though, the company has rolled out the ability to follow thought leaders. They’ve rolled this out with 150 business, political and other notable individuals, including Caterina Fake, Tim Oreilly, Richard Branson and the current and hopeful occupants of the White House. Following these individuals means you get their updates right on your LinkedIn home page. Those 150 influential individuals also have access to a new long-form publishing tool that is basically blog software as opposed to just a status update tool.
All of that is pretty cool in theory. By differentiating “Follow” from “Connect” LinkedIn has drawn a line between wanting to stay up to date on what someone is thinking versus wanting to add them to your professional network. That can be useful since you may want to see what Craig Newmark has to say but there’s no way he’s adding you as someone he’d professionally vouch for or endorse.
What I’m not so sure about is the new publishing tool. The world doesn’t exactly lack for such things. It’s also hard to imagine that this isn’t something LinkedIn would roll out, slowly but surely, to more and more of its user base. Everything it’s done – including this – is meant to increase time spent on site and if it can build a tool that’s more professional than Tumblr, comes with a built in network and is more attractive than Facebook to a business-minded group of users then it could manage to gain some traction. As it is, though, it remains a “Wow, that looks kind of cool” feature that everyone but these 150 individuals is looking at from the outside.
My biggest problem with this is that the initial group of people to follow were labeled as “influencers.” That’s such a vague term at this point that it’s lost almost all meaning. I’m not particularly influenced (directly at least) by any of these folks, though I’m certainly aware of them and aware of the fact that they have an impact on the world around me. So I know what LinkedIn is going for here, but the word choice leaves something to be desired I think.
Whatever qualms I might have with specific terms and such I will say this: Right now LinkedIn is doing some of the most interesting innovating around site features and functionality of any social network on the web. They’ve made a number of solid moves lately that add legitimate value to the core product. Some of it might be seen as copying what other sites have done before, but that’s alright since more often than not this comes off as wanting to take the time and do it right. It will be interesting to see how this plays out and if they can continue to gather the quality content that will make this into another valuable feature addition.