I use LinkedIn pretty much “by the book”, i.e., as they recommend in their FAQ:
When you invite a friend or colleague to reconnect, be sure the person you’re choosing will be a good addition to your network. Only invite those you know and trust. You may be asked to tell one of your trusted friends more about the person you invite, and they may have to do the same for you. Or you may be forwarding a request (your own, or one from a friend) through them. Be sure you trust them to represent you and to treat a potentially serious request with appropriate care.
Some LinkedIn users have a more open policy regarding accepting connection requests from people they don’t know. They think of this as “networking”, or at least the start of it. How else are you supposed to meet new people, right? And that’s common practice on Facebook, MySpace and other social networking sites.
But as Vincent Wright has said 1,000 times, “You don’t have to link to network.”
In the context of LinkedIn, for most users, a link — a connection — implies a willingness to make business referrals, since that is the unique value of LinkedIn compared to other tools. On many other sites, I accept friend and contact requests openly, but LinkedIn is different, and here’s why…
LinkedIn isn’t a social networking site in the sense that those others are, and when you try to make it work like one, it falls short — like trying to pound a nail with a screwdriver. LinkedIn is more like a road map of your network — your real network of real relationships (they may be virtual, but there’s still some substance behind them). And if that map is filled with “connections” that aren’t really there, then the map is less useful.
In other words, if I connected directly on LinkedIn with 5,000 people, on those occasions that I wanted a “trusted referral”, I wouldn’t be able to distinguish those paths from all of the others.
If you want to network with me, my email address is public knowledge — scott [at] the virtual handshake [dot] com. Send me an email and let’s talk. Or send me an InMail. But don’t ask me to connect. A relationship starts with “Hello,” not “Please refer business to me — I’ll refer business to you.”