That, my friend, is an excellent question!
There are two primary schools of thought on this: quality or quantity. Those who lean toward quantity will try to create the biggest list of connections possible in order to expand their network as far as possible. This could come in very handy when looking for jobs, especially targeted searches for particular companies or industries – obviously, if you have thousands of connections, a single post to your LinkedIn page is going to reach far more people than if you had just a couple hundred connections, thus increasing your chances of finding your target somehow. LinkedIn has also become quite the gathering ground for business- or industry-related articles and opinion columns. Having a lot of connections means a lot of eyes will see whatever you post, and increase your chances of getting interactions and notice from others in your industry. However, there are some downsides to having a huge network on LinkedIn, and they need to be considered, as well.
For one thing, one of the best ways to connect to someone new and grow your network is through LinkedIn introductions. Normally, you would ask one of your existing connections to write a brief introduction message and put you in touch with someone you’re trying to reach (who is a connection of theirs). If you have a vast network of connections but don’t really know them very well, that introduction message is likely to lack a certain heartfelt genuineness that could put off the recipient and fail to bring about an actual contact in real life. Second, when you connect with someone, you can see all of their connections…and they can see yours. Whether or not it’s fair or right, the people with whom you associate do reflect on you, so if you don’t know your connections well, it’s possible that their actions, words, or histories could be damaging to you without you even knowing it. Finally, studies show that it’s usually the quality of your connections rather than the quantity of your connections that are more likely to land you a job. It’s those personal recommendations from people who really know the kind of person — and professional — you are that carry weight with those making the hiring decisions.
This leads us to the quality school of thought. In addition to the recommendation aspect previously mentioned, there is the flip side, as well. If someone asks you to introduce them to one of your connections, but it’s not someone you know well enough to thoroughly endorse, then why bother having them as a connection in the first place? Similarly, you don’t want to introduce someone to one of your connections that ends up being a total flake; that makes you look bad! Actually knowing all of your connections is probably the single biggest thing to keep in mind when it comes to either side of the recommendation coin. Of course, there’s a threshold below which being choosy in your connections becomes silly – if you only have three or four connections, then you’re kind of wasting your time on LinkedIn. Find a happy medium that works for you. There’s also that association thing at play, too; you don’t want to be connected to someone who turns out to be a serial killer, and you certainly don’t want to introduce them to anyone new!
In all seriousness, though, the bottom line is that when you’re setting up your LinkedIn network, first stop and think about how you plan to use it. Is your goal to get as big a network as possible because you plan to post industry relevant information on a regular basis? Is it just to have a convenient online resume that people can see when need them to? Is it to make (and help others make) genuine connections in a way that jobs are found and lives are improved? Bottom line: what’s your purpose? This question will go a long way toward guiding your decision-making process on who your connections should be and what threshold you use for determining which connection request to send or accept.
One more thing – don’t be afraid to remove connections. It’s probably a good idea to sweep through your LinkedIn contacts list at least yearly to remove contacts with whom you no longer keep in touch. Think of it as a digital spring cleaning. If nothing else, use that sweep to first try to re-establish contact with people and renew those relationships. If they don’t respond, then you know it’s time to remove them from your list.
LinkedIn is a terrific tool, but like most other tools it is only really useful in the right situations and in the right hands. Develop your purpose, make a plan, and then execute it. You’ll be doing yourself a favor.