I use - Facebook, Tribe, LiveJournal, LinkedIn all for different purposes. I notice that with LinkedIn the userinterface design focuses the communication on resume items, shared connections, recommendations and very very lightweight updates. When looking at the real estate used in Facebook, by comparison, the focus seemes to be on current activities, coordination of individuals or groups, shared or interesting experiences, and sharing of media - all stuff that focuses my use of it on a more social, sharing agenda.
My primary focus on LinkedIn is the network. I use it primarily for:
Answering "who is this guy?" - when making a professional connection. For example - interview candidates or interviewers I'll be meeting, vendor representatives, or other potential collaborators. My goal is mostly finding a shared point of experience or understanding that I can use to speed up the in person conversation. Also - if the person fits into my web of connections, I may be able to dredge up a personal reference from a trusted source - the best of all worlds.
Finding people who suit my agenda - I'm not an HR recruiter, but I do a lot of work in hiring people. I may want to find names who can help me (I'm looking for a trust worthy consultant for X, is there anyone in my network that I know...?) Often even my friends and close collegues have so much going on, that I'll find more on a search with Linked In than in personal connections.
Finding and tracking people I might otherwise have "lost" - every positive connection in my professional career is a potential opportunity for more good stuff to come my way. It can be as simple as a friend thinking of me and sending me a cool journal article that turns my next project into something outstanding, or a big thing like getting a great job from an old boss. LinkedIn helped me find old college and first job friends I lost touch with, particularly in cases where the contact should stay professional and fairly abstract and be guaranteed to be free of the "dude, anyone want a beer?" daily flak that I have on Facebook.
"What's everyone else doing?" - I just got a new qualification, how do other people describe it on their bios? Also - what's the typical skill set at a given level of expertise in a given domain? If I'm hiring a self-described "Principal Engineer" - is he as experienced as other Principal Engineers?
The downside, for me, is that it's used by a lot of recruiters. I find my contact with recruiters is about as deep and satifying as being sneezed on in a subway car. Sorry recruiters, but the last job hunt proved that recruiters were 100% useless for me, but with an expensive "cost" in terms of the time an energy they consumed.
To answer specific questions:
How do I use it to maximize my hireability? Is it just another place to copy all the information out of my resume and let it sit there?
First - nothing short of doing great work will REALLY improve hireability. When it comes down the hard choice between two candidates, it will always be experience and demonstration of skills/qualities based on the interview.
LinkedIn can improve your exposure - so if you are an awesome candidate who isn't getting seen by many people LinkedIn may help. It may also help in verifying your identity - giving you common ground with hiring people who are trying to see if you are who you say you are and if you and they have any common points of connection that can give a sense of certainty.
I disrecommend just sticking your data out there and ignoring it... that almost never helps, and from a networking perspective you might as well skip it. I recommend:
- post your data
- keep it up date (quarterly is fine)
- keep building your contacts (I usually do this monthly and/or after a big networking thing as a way of making closure on the event).
Should I be joining groups -- does that actually help or just spam my email? And if so, which groups should I be joining?
My personal experience is that groups are useless. I'd love to see one take off, but they are either no volume/no value or high volume/no value as far as I can tell. Too many people who are mostly out to push an agenda and not really much about collaboration...
Should I friend only people I know or try to friend complete strangers?
People you know. Given how I use it, I would be unimpressed to ask a candidate "so, I see we both know John Smith" and hear "nope, I just made a connection to him".
I've done this to my detriment a few times - recruiters seem to always want to connect to me, and I used to let them. Given my sneeze on the subway experience with most of them, I've found that I now have a network with a number of little "recruiter viral connections" as they have connected to so many disparate people that now any connection through a recruiter is unlikely to be of any value to me... so as I perambulate through the LinkedIn pages, I have to mentally weed out these recruiters... fortunately, that's not impossible - they are the people in my connection list that I don't know...
I've also had to wrestle with whether to connect to purely personal friends. I generally will connect with them but I do set the bar a bit higher. While I may connect with a coworker I've only met a handful of times, I WON'T connect with a social-only contact until I know what they do for a living, what their job goals might be, and maybe a bit more about them... However, I may very well friend that person on Facebook, as they fit well into the "dude you want a beer?" conversation I want to have there.