You’ve probably noticed people in your LinkedIn network with LION by their names, and maybe know that it stands for “LinkedIn Open Networker.”

But what exactly does that mean, and who should become a LION?

The basic idea behind LIONs is that open-networkers are LinkedIn users who are willing to establish connections with people with whom they’ve had no previous relationship. In other words: “I don’t know you and you don’t know me, but let’s connect anyway and help grow each other’s network,” as blogger Rob Mendez said.

Essentially, a LION will accept a connection invitation from anyone. Advertising on your profile that you’re a LION is a quick and easy way to grow your number of connections, but that certainly doesn’t mean everyone should do it.

The LION concept is in some regard antithetical to the guiding principle behind LinkedIn. That is, that users should limit their connections to those they’ve known and worked with in real life. (The company didn’t respond to an inquiry asking for clarity around its position on LIONs.)

Aside from boosting a LinkedIn user’s number of connections, the appeal of becoming a LION lies in its ability to help users forge connections with those they’d typically not otherwise know. Think of it as a way to freshen up an otherwise stagnant network.

“The value of networking is really in meeting people you don’t know,” said social media expert Neal Schaffer, of Windmills Marketing, and a LinkedIn user who has nearly 30,000 connections.

Marc Wolbert, a recruiter in the Cleveland area with Kelly Scientific Resources, said he’s been a LION for about a year and a half. It’s helped Wolbert establish a dialogue with candidates for jobs clients are looking to fill, as well as find out about in-person networking events he may not have otherwise discovered.

“It kind of got the ball rolling for some people I’d previously not connected with,” he said. “It’s expanded my realm of people that I talk to.”

No downside there, right? Not exactly. LIONs can get weighed down by excessive amounts of connection requests, will almost inevitably end up with lots of connections of questionable value and open themselves up to connections with unscrupulous internet marketers who’ve created fake LinkedIn profiles.

“I wouldn’t call it spam, but you’ll make connection that may not be of immediate use,” Wolbert said.

It’s that downside that’s led a LinkedIn power user like Schaffer to remove the LION tag from his LinkedIn branding and disassociate himself with LION groups.

The connections you’ll establish as a LION are typically more about quantity than quality, and that doesn’t necessarily help the average LinkedIn user all that much. “For most people, the most important objective isn’t building up a big network,” Schaffer said.

Schaffer said branding oneself as a LION makes sense for people in sales and recruiting (like Wolbert), but probably not for most other LinkedIn users.

Instead, add a few strategic LIONs to your own network to facilitate meeting new people, Schaffer recommended.

If you do brand yourself as a LION, the cardinal rule is that you shouldn’t turn down an invitation by clicking that you don’t know the person or marking the invitation as spam, which can lead to that LinkedIn user to incur penalties by the site. Rather, if for some reason a LION doesn’t want to accept an invitation, simply archive the invitation and it’ll eventually expire.

Failing to heed this advice could lead to being labeled a “Lying LION” – something best avoided.

For most of, though, the best means of building up our networks is the old-fashioned way, according to Schaffer.

“The way to build up targeted network is by meeting people on a daily basis,” he said.