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While their use is still largely limited to less-than-mission-critical purposes, online social networking services are becoming more popular each day.

Dating, hobby-related hookups, and party announcements are some of the many trivial pursuits people seek on Web sites like Friendster, MySpace, and Tribe.net.  But there is growing evidence to support claims that some social networking services (SNS for short) can be a powerful professional ally to businesses — in particular, independent entrepreneurs and smaller companies, for whom each new personal connection is a significant business building block.

LinkedIn and ZeroDegrees are two of the more popular services that facilitate business-oriented connections, and some argue these and similar sites are now doing a better job at connectivity than ever before. Remember Metcalfe's Law — coined by the inventor of Ethernet — which states that the power of a network grows in proportion to the square of the number of its nodes? That's a geeky way of saying that networking technologies nobody uses are of limited value. As the popularity of SNS sites grows, so does their value, because a larger number of users mean better odds for productive connections.

Have online schmooze services finally grown up and gone to work? Or are the latest "pro" promises just another round of 'Net hype? For answers, we turned to entrepreneurs, researchers and power networkers who have each logged many hours building careers and businesses with online social networks.

Danah Boyd
PhD student researching social networking systems
at UC Berkeley's School of Information Management
and Systems
Q: How can this technology be helpful for building businesses?

A: Salespeople know how to work their black books to make sales, and rolodexes can be a businessperson's best asset.  These Web sites just take that online.

Q: Are there regional differences in the way we use these services?

A: Absolutely. Business culture operates differently in different cities around the world. But I don't think it's possible to design one system that incorporates all social norms for networking. Human beings are just too diverse.

Noah Glass
CEO of audio-blogging service provider Listenlab
Q: How have you put SNSes to work?

A: Recently, I was doing some research for a business proposal that requires partners. I had a few possibilities in mind, but had no direct connections. After some online social network research, I discovered that I was only one "degree" from the people I needed to talk to. The system worked. These services aren't magical dust that makes money appear — but they can facilitate valuable connections.

Travis Kalanick
27-year-old Founder and CEO of Red Swoosh
Q: How do you use online social networking services?

A: Social networks are like grease — in some cases, gasoline — for our personal business networking machines. If you aren't plugged in, you will be out-done by better-connected, hyper-networked colleagues and competitors.

LinkedIn is very good for browsing relationships and hooking into your contacts' networks. It re-connected me with high-level execs I hadn't talked to for some time, who then helped me close various deals. And I've hired some highly qualified contractors after connecting with them on Orkut.

Q: What would you like to see in the ultimate SNS?

A: Integration with a corporate-strength instant messaging VoIP application. And for higher-level execs with greater public visibility, social networks need to become as good at filtering as they are at connecting.

Scott Beale
Founder of Web hosting service and
Bay Area
tech-art community hub Laughing Squid
Q: Why are these services becoming popular as business networking tools?

A: The price is right — most are free — so how can it hurt to try?  Since 2002, I've tried three: Ryze, Friendster, and Tribe.net. The not-for-profit side of my business is very active in the art and culture world, particularly in the San Francisco Bay Area. Sometimes when people come across my profile on one of these networks, it reminds them that there is also a business side to our organization. As a result, some new Web hosting order forms have come in that list Tribe.net as source of referral.

Joi Ito
Japan-based "social entrepreneur" and power blogger
Q: Can SNS help entrepreneurs?

A: Yes, but their usefulness depends on your needs and networking style. LinkedIn, for example allows you to search histories and CVs in your network — it's great for finding people who work in a particular company, or who have worked with someone you know. It's also an interesting way to find references for people or companies you're getting to know.

I think email is broken in a serious way, and SNS is trying to address some of the issues associated with that breakdown. These networks may get it right and really change the way we do business, but we're still at the beginning of the development and evolution curve.

Q: How have you put them to work?

A: I've received interview requests, forwarded several job offers that culminated in success, and met people who I later ended up meeting face-to-face and becoming friends with for future collaboration. I think the ability to tune in to "just enough but not too much" will be the key to success for these services.

Frank Keeney
Wireless industry consultant and co-founder
of the Southern California Wireless Users' Group
Q: How do you use SNSes?

A: They're great for finding contacts in companies you might not otherwise have access to. Zerodegrees tends to best suit the way I work — I like the plug-in for Microsoft Outlook.  Introductions happen from someone you already know, so there are no "cold-contacts."

Q: What would make these services more useful to entrepreneurs?

A: Redesigns with business users in mind. The ultimate service? Something that can read my mind. Or at least have more business smarts, some form of "network intelligence" that can help me search for contacts that might be compatible for the type of work I do.

Scott Rafer
President and CEO of Weblog search engine Feedster
Q: What risks should would-be online networkers consider before signing up?

A: It's possible for colleagues to see your personal profile on non-business social networks and know more about you than you may want them to. One friend of mine put some rather personal information on her Orkut page, not immediately realizing that people would find her through me and know exactly who she was in a professional context.

Q: What's next?

A: The integration of SNSes with blogging seems to be the next big thing. I expect that all the major ecommerce sites will find a way to do customer acquisition using social nets within two years, starting with direct-to-consumer focused companies like JetBlue and Southwest Air.

Q: Any killer features you'd want to see in the ultimate SNS?

A: A location feature similar to what dodgeball offers — so I can find out if one of my customers or partners happens to be in the same airport at the same time and is willing to have coffee or a beer.

Xeni Jardin is a tech-culture journalist and co-editor of the collaborative Weblog BoingBoing, the Bloggie-award-winning"Directory of Wonderful Things."

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