When my 81-year-old father sent me a LinkedIn invitation, I knew some milestone had been passed. Social networking is not just for MySpace users anymore. It's simply essential for businesspeople to be plugged into the online business community. But what's the best way to dive in?
Here are reviews for three of the most ubiquitous and useful networks for online business, plus a couple of not-ready-for-prime-time sites where the learning curve is so steep that your time could be better spent elsewhere.
LinkedIn is the 800-lb. gorilla in the business-focused online networking space, and it's rare for me to speak with a group of businesspeople today and find that three-quarters of them aren't already LinkedIn users. The basic LinkedIn membership is free, and the site offers a powerful proposition: Find and be found by 25 million business networkers, directly via your LinkedIn profile or through your "trusted colleague" LinkedIn network.
LinkedIn makes it easy to find friends of yours who are already using the site so you can add them to your network and vice versa, and it allows you to track down prior colleagues and classmates for the same purpose. The LinkedIn Jobs feature is useful because the jobs posted there aren't attached to disembodied, faceless HR departments; they're posted by actual, reachable LinkedIn users, so there's always a warm body associated with a job opening.
The LinkedIn Answers area lets you ask questions of the LinkedIn membership and get answers back. A downside of LinkedIn is that new users won't find a lot of help on the site as they seek to become proficient, but unaffiliated sites like www.LinkedIntelligence.com and the unauthorized user group MyLinkedInPowerForum can help newbies over that hurdle.
Strengths: Number of members, credibility, steady stream of new features.
Weaknesses: Prone to invitation-spammers, best features not obvious to new users.
Rating: Four stars (out of five)
Facebook is pretty, and it's fun. It irritates my children to no end that I'm on the site and connected to last year's high school drum major, but our drum major is a smart cookie and knows that it's never a bad idea for a future job-seeker to keep up with adults in her sphere. Facebook isn't really a business networking site, but it has some powerful advantages over the more staid LinkedIn in that it allows users to interact in a less formal manner than LinkedIn does. I have a [small] tolerance for "Let's compare movie tastes" from my business friends, and those silly tools help to create rapport in a way that LinkedIn doesn't enable.
What I especially like about Facebook is that the site allows relationships to develop the way they do in the offline world: in steps. A ping, a poke, a shared article or joke, then maybe an e-mail correspondence; I think this is a better way to cultivate a business relationship than LinkedIn's binary "we're connected or we're not" mode. Facebook allows users to upload tons of photos and videos, not just the single, business-y photo that LinkedIn permits, and its discussion groups make it easy for users to figure out whom to contact for one-on-one communication.
Strengths: Easy to use, fun, captures the nonbusiness-y side of professional people.
Weaknesses: Really not a business application in any sense, at this stage.
Rating: Four stars
The Rodney Dangerfield of business networking sites, Yahoo! Groups (YHOO) "gets no respect at all," but savvy businesspeople should take a closer look for content-rich business networking. Yahoo! Groups is home to millions of discussion groups on every topic imaginable, from renaissance headgear to search engine optimization. Participation in a business-focused group is a great way to share ideas, build your own online presence and credibility, and create relationships with people who share your business interests and goals.
You need to put in a bit of time to find a group (or more than one) that suits you, but Yahoo's investment in "Web-ifying" the interface means that you don't have to receive any group e-mail if you don't want to. You can simply join a group and read messages, respond to them, or post new topics from your group's home page.
Strengths: The best social-networking tool for sharing ideas and conversing in a group.
Weaknesses: Despite the ability to upload photos and links, it's pretty much all conversation at the moment, so it's hard to learn more about your fellow groupies than what's in their e-mail signatures.
Rating: 3½ stars
Viaduc: I took a look at Viaduc when the first wave of its invitations hit my inbox several months ago, and was dismayed by the site's kludgy navigation, the rampant language errors, and the unfortunate ability of any one member to invite any other member to connect with him or her directly. That's a big problem in these days of flying bacn (social-networking's version of spam).
CollectiveX: CollectiveX is a site where users are invited to join existing groups or start their own, but woe to the novice user who visits the unintuitive site at this early stage. CollectiveX is full of dead-end pages that give a user no guidance on what to do next, how to participate in a group, or why the site should be useful. Our verdict: Not ready for prime time.
Naymz: If the nayme of the site isn't off-putting enough, the site's design and me-too feel will send you back to LinkedIn or Facebook in a heartbeat. Life is too short to join every new social-networking site that pops up, and Naymz at this point in its development is an excellent choice to cross off your list.