This morning I awoke to discover I had 44 new friends.
Technically, not friends; this wasn’t Facebook. It was LinkedIn, which makes them connections. I had had an accident – a social-media accident.
It happened last night while I was talking with Janice, my actual friend and tireless cheerleader since we met on the first day of sixth grade, about 45 years ago. My Vancouver apartment has no landline and I still hate cellphones (particularly the one that was allowed to ring five or six times during the Met HD broadcast of “Ernani” this morning). So I’ve been relying on Gmail’s free Internet phone, which uses my laptop’s built-in microphone and speakers. Making a hands-free phone call while sitting in front of a laptop can be dangerous, especially when Mercury is retrograde.
Since Janice is pushing me to do more networking, and since I had just posted an update on LinkedIn crowing about my students’ performance on their final exam, I was noodling around on the site to see if I had missed anyone with whom I should be connecting. Somehow I got to a screen I had never seen before, apparently a list of my contacts imported from Gmail. As I weeded them out, I must have hit the wrong button, because the next message informed me that I had sent out 454 invitations to connect.
I’m no Luddite, but neither am I a terribly social person, let alone a social-media person. Residual shyness from an isolated childhood usually makes me uncomfortable with anyone I haven’t known for a good 10 years, preferably with a proper introduction. My parents used to say, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” but in a sneering, resentful way. They never suggested that making connections might an important life skill, as I learned too late.
I have a Facebook page but, having been burned, rarely use it. Last week I had to set up a Twitter account so I could grade exams and final projects, which have a large social-media component; I now have six followers, though I suspect there’ll be precious little to follow. (In any case, Twitter is gibberish, and badly spelled, poorly punctuated gibberish at that.) LinkedIn, being professionally oriented, is about my speed.
“Important: Only invite people you know well and who know you,” it advises. The reasons: “Connecting to someone on LinkedIn implies that you know them well: They’ll have access to people you know. Others may ask you about them and vice versa. You’ll get updates on their activity.” Recipients of invitations may ignore them or indicate they don’t know you. I’m sure a good number of the 454 have already done just that, probably including some former New York Times colleagues, and maybe the old boyfriend I once found on LinkedIn, who used to have blond curls down to s shoulders and now looks like John McCain. But once I got over the deep embarrassment of being an inadvertent spammer, the responses surprised and pleased me.
At least 10 were immediate, automated “out of office” replies, and a number of others indicated they had gone to various customer-service departments I had consulted. One polite man pleaded a senior moment and asked exactly how he knew me; I wrote back that he didn’t, that we had probably had a brief e-mail exchange sometime in the last four years. Several people, even further removed from the social-media generation than I, begged to be excused, since they don’t have LinkedIn accounts.
But the acceptances! Students and colleagues here at UBC, to whom I am most grateful. Students from my English-for-business course at Columbia last summer, some from my class in Poland two years ago and at least one in China. Someone from my college newspaper, and two people still at The Times. A Polish ballet dancer I interviewed in Warsaw. Canadian press agents I’ve just met. A Brazilian professor who was interested in English lessons this winter in New York, which I couldn’t give her because I was coming to Vancouver. Academics with whom I’ve had only the most tenuous connections. A fellow usher at Lincoln Center Theater. The daughter of a friend who died nearly two years ago; in her photo I see her mother’s face. My niece and great-niece. And at least seven people I can’t identify. Do they know me, or think they do, or are they just networking?
If this is my new social network, it stretches around the world and across my professional spectrum. At first I wished LinkedIn had a great big “undo” button, but now I’m not so sure. At this writing I have 143 connections – not a huge number, compared to those who really work the system, but nearly double what I had yesterday at this time. Some are people I’d have been too intimidated to approach in real life, and maybe, just maybe, they felt the same way about me. In any case, welcome to my world. Make that 149.