For the past few months I’ve been experimenting with the new social networking tools that are available online. The one I’ve found most useful (relatively speaking) is LinkedIn. Internetworking websites and software are designed for business development, closing deals, generating leads, helping people find work by showing potentially invisible connections between aquaintances and friends. The idea is that we all know a finite number of people, and each person we know knows another finite number, and so on (colleagues at work, people at church or mosque, college buddies, etc). By each of us connecting who we know, our previously hidden network becomes visible and we can conduct business, hire employees, and even get jobs through connections we didn’t know we had (since presumably we know only our friends, but not our friends’ friends, and certainly not their friends’ friends). It’s a powerful concept but only time will tell how useful it is. If you already network well socially and professionally these new software tools will only improve your capabilities. However, if you’re like most programmers, engineers, and scientists that don’t know how to network professionally the tools may help you even more.
Another interesting tool is VisiblePath, which reads employees’ deskop applications for data on their relationships with people outside their own firms and builds what the company calls an “enterpise network map” that could make visible heretofore invisible connections that could be mined for additional sales leads or better customer service.
How do you start networking? Simple — just get onto a site (like LinkedIn), register for a free account, fill out your profile, and start inviting others. If you know me (or would like), feel free to get onto LinkedIn and lookup my name and send me an invitation to your network.
The primary drawbacks that I see for social and professional networking through the Internet are fairly easy to enumerate: privacy, culture, face-time, and physical interaction. Privacy in an electronic world is increasingly rare but if we started publishing everything about us (like I do) online and it’s now available through ever-growing networks that scale exponentially we can forget about privacy. If everyone’s 6 degrees away from everyone on the planet and all these networks facilitate increased communication between all participants we can simply start getting spammed by people within our own networks! To be fair, most of the tools that I’ve seen, especially LinkedIn, require permission from connections before e-mail can be sent so privacy concerns may not be as bad as we think. For example, if you’re separated from me through one of my friends, my friend would have to give you permission to send me an e-mail (you can’t just send it directly). The only successful networking tools will be those that enable and easily facilitate this type of privacy.
Another problem is culture — how does an American like me fit in a potential professional network with people from Spain? Do Muslims connect socially on the Internet the same way as Christians? Should we care? Is the problem any different with these tools and websites than it is with online chats or e-mail? Perhaps it is, but I suspect it is not — we’ll know in the next few years.
The last problem, and potentially bigger, is face-time and physical interaction. I’ve been using computers since I was 12 and communicating electronically for many years. However, we’ll need to understand that these Internetworking sites and social networks are no substitute for face-time because most of our important interactions occur physically, in real-time. Depending on tools like LinkedIn for anything other than making contact and later requesting face-time and physical contact would be foolish. If your business doesn’t close deals or hire people through e-mail today, don’t expect these new tools to change that — if your business depends on interacting with people to make money then you’ll need to continue to do that.