Ritson LinkedIn
Mark Ritson’s professional network (artist’s impression)

I am ever so slightly dependent on LinkedIn. It’s a very good source of marketing and branding perspectives and, more importantly, the only realistic way to communicate with my students.

I’ve taught 600 MBA students annually for about 20 years now. Add to that about 2,000 executives on the Mini MBA in Marketing each year, plus the usual collection of marketing randoms I meet along the road and it’s easy to see why I love LinkedIn so much. With one click I can get a message, with another find out who is sending it and why I know them, and with a third reply back efficiently.

So, back in September, it was hardly a surprise to see a build-up of about 50 invites from fellow marketers wanting to connect. But as I casually clicked on them an error message kept appearing. A software glitch or a temporary network issue, I thought. And left it at that.

A few days later the list had grown to 80 and I tried again. Once more my attempts met with failure. And it was then the penny finally dropped: I had reached the end of the road. Thirty thousand connections is the maximum number LinkedIn will allow. Apparently, that limit was set to “keep LinkedIn working smoothly” because “exceedingly large networks impact site reliability and member experience”.

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To be fair, LinkedIn does offer a fallback position in the form of ‘followers’. While I can no longer connect with my peers, they can follow me on the site and read whatever I post. But that idea fills me with dread and embarrassment. Imagine going to a meeting and having someone hand you their business card and ask for yours in return. You reject the request but mention that you will be giving a speech at Christmas and tickets are now on sale. Mortifying.

Similarly, I’ve always ended my MBA class with my LinkedIn details and encouraged a connection. Concluding my class with my LinkedIn profile and a request that all the students ‘follow me’ makes me sound like Ramses the Great. Or Jesus. I want to connect with peers, not lead the masses to the Promised Land.

Buyer’s remorse

Meanwhile, my virtual logjam was just getting worse. Not only were the number of potential contacts ticking upwards, some of the invites really caused me palpitations.

I would meet someone on a consulting job and spend a splendid two-day period working with them, shoulder to shoulder. They would then send me a LinkedIn invite with a cheerful message and I would promptly appear to ignore them. “What a wanker,” I would imagine them thinking after a few days had elapsed and their invite remained unrequited.

Then I got a couple of what I would call ‘celebrity invites’. One from a senior administrator at a very famous football club. The kind of invite you not only accept but for which you also send a toadying thank you with a return note to “meet up soon” and “stay in touch” plus “don’t forget the free tickets”.

There was also a hearty invitation from a very important CMO that I left standing in the virtual rain while I apparently ignored them too. I tried writing an explanatory note to one VVIP that explained I had reached my quota of 30,000 contacts. But it, much like this column I expect, just made me sound like such a total wanker. I opted for silence from that point on.

I looked up at the professional waiting list, which was now hovering at the 800 mark.

I also have to admit that I started to review the successful contacts in ‘my network’ with something akin to buyer’s remorse. Sure, there were some old friends, favourite students and genuine business contacts staring back at me as I scrolled through my contact list. But there were also a lot of faces who, with a little hindsight and a new appreciation for the scarcity of business connections, would not have made the cut.

That bloke I met on the Jubilee Line who had the same shoes as me. My Dad – FFS. Everyone from Carpet World. And Andy Dorkins.

Andy had fallen asleep on the bonnet of my car on Australia Day in 2010 and we had made contact as a result. I was currently ignoring the CEO of one of the top five luxury brands for a bloke that sleeps on random cars in the middle of the day. The opportunity cost was massive.

I smiled again at Andy’s face and the memory of pulling him off my car and gently dropping him in a heap next to it. And then, glancing at his status as a low-level industrial parts engineer for a company I had not heard of, I right-clicked the three little grey dots next to his profile and clicked ‘remove connection’.

“Are you sure want to remove Andy Dorkins as a connection?” LinkedIn immediately challenged. And then, in softer, more Machiavellian tones: “Don’t worry Andy won’t be notified by LinkedIn.”

Click. Andy was no more.

I looked up at the professional waiting list, which was now hovering at the 800 mark. “Fuck it,” I said out loud. “Let’s cull.”

It turns out that LinkedIn is the exact opposite of dating. When meeting a hot date for dinner, I always found it super-difficult to make any kind of connection but surprisingly easy to knock bad relationships on the head. LinkedIn is the other way around. Making initial connections and sweet, sweet online professional intercourse could not be easier. Shutting things down, however, is a total pain in the ass.

There is no ranking you can do on salary or seniority or even proximity. You have to manually scroll through your 30,000 contacts like a fucking sniper. You click on someone’s smiling face and then have to essentially make a live-or-die decision on the spot while the unfortunate contact grins back at you unknowingly.

I link dead people

In the end, the inhumanity of pulling the trigger on so many perfectly lovely people took its toll. I gave up, with a paltry body count of 28, to reassess my approach. It was then I started to contemplate the concept of death.

The annual mortality rate among adults in the UK is about nine per 1,000 people. Given I have gradually built up to 30,000 connections and have been on LinkedIn for 15 years that means I am probably connected to around 225 dead people.

That’s a sizeable number and, clearly, represents a sub-group who offer limited future potential for me on LinkedIn. But while it’s a very meaningful distinction, it’s also a very unactionable one. It’s not like deceased contacts’ photos change. Or loved ones go online and remove their profiles.

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At some point it’s going to happen to us all so LinkedIn better have a plan down the track to avoid the dead outnumbering the living on their platform. For now there is nothing I can do about it.

Disappointed by the invisible dead populating my network, I turned to a less terminal but more identifiable condition: retirement. It turns out that when managers retire most of them visit their LinkedIn page and actually change their profile, to reflect their new status and mock those still stuck in the daily grind. You can search your contacts for the phrase ‘retired’ and knock them off in mass culls too.

I appreciate that some retired executives are very good value and offer a seasoned perspective, etc, etc. But I have got a small army of warm-blooded, senior executives and suitably perky high-potentials lining up outside and I need to make room. So, I culled 93 people in what can only be described as a grey massacre.

Given I have built up 30,000 connections in 15 years I am probably connected to around 225 dead people.

I even removed a bloke that had described himself as a “retired hipster” only to realise mid-execution that he was trying to be funny and was only about 40. I dinged him anyway. The qualmless bloodlust was insatiable.

But that still left me with 10 times the potential connections versus spaces. It took about two minutes to allocate the newly freed up spaces and I was back to the same problem again. Of course, I was now being a lot choosier about who to connect with. Where once I was the Lamb and Flag on Kilburn High Street on a Tuesday afternoon, I was now Studio 69 on the last Friday before Christmas.

In my pre-30,000 days I would have connected with you for giving me athlete’s foot in a public swimming pool. Now, short of being a god or goddess of marketing or owning a seven-figure training budget, your chances were tiny.

Given that slender ratio it was obvious I had to find a better way to cull my contacts. I considered removing all the sales managers from my network. They are lovely people but, professionally speaking, they come from a different planet and offer me little, if any, value.

I looked hard at removing all the Canadians in my contacts list on the basis that they are largely pointless and would probably take their extermination in the decent, self-effacing manner I have come to admire and detest about this noble race.

I thought about ‘doing a Thanos’ and randomly removing one in five of my contacts. I even looked into hiring someone to do this for me to ensure it was done as arbitrarily and efficiently as possible.

But in the end, I came up with a better solution. I am good mates with a bunch of people from LinkedIn, the company. I deleted them all last week. Hopefully the fuckers have no choice: either remove your fascist constraint on my network or never hear from me again.

Do you hear me Jann? Jon? Pete? You are dead to me now. Dead.

Mark Ritson is a columnist for Marketing Week but, unless you are Sir Martin Sorrell or a member of Abba, he is unavailable via LinkedIn. You can, however, follow him on the platform, like a pharaoh, if you wish.