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I'm Linked In, Now What?

Social networking is a tech bubble that I fear is about to burst. Months ago, venture investors and entrepreneurs jumped on the pump and began inflating the idea that there was money to be made by exploiting so-called six degrees of separation.

Business networks, after all, function on who you know. Those relationships could be easily mapped and interconnected in order to expand your network to include the networks of everyone you know -- and of everyone they know. Enter Friendster, Spoke, LinkedIn, Tribe, and a half dozen other start-ups grabbing capital that suddenly became available to anyone with a wide-eyed idea about how to make money off their customers' rolodexes.

Like a lot of folks, I began taking a serious look at social networks last summer. Six months later, my experiments with social networks yielded results that should have been obvious from the outset.

Business and social networks are inherently personal and private. Yet, paradoxically, they are also a measure of social status. That is, people want to be plugged in, and what you to know it - but they may not want you to know who they are plugged in to. That people tend to jealously guard their business and social relationships is the first big challenge to social networking.

The second challenge is the significant difference between your rolodex and your business network - a distinction that many social networks don't accurately make. I, for example, have thousands of contacts in my rolodex, yet I count my trusted network as a much smaller number, something less than 10 percent of the overall name bank. The third major hurdle is the hesitancy people have in sharing their relationships. Even the closest friend may hesitate to make an introduction to a valued business associate, knowing that the ensuing exchange is as much a reflection on him as it is on you. Many factors go into the decision to bridge two members of your network. Will both parties benefit from the introduction? Will the parties respect your relationship with the other? Will they see you as a valuable link or an annoying glad hander? And for some maybe most importantly, will you benefit from making the connection?
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So take LinkedIn, for example. After six months, my "network" extends to more than 86,000 people. Almost daily, I am asked to join someone's network. When I accept such an invitation, I get a glimpse at just how connected I am. (More than Heidi Roizen or Jonathan Seelig, I was surprised to learn, but much less than Tapio Anttila, who is perhaps THE most connected person and who no doubt accounts for the fact that 5 percent of my network is from Finland.)

Were I prone to believe these numbers, I'd be quite smug. But I don't. I can't believe that there are more people on this planet who would take a call from me than from either of the aforementioned venture capitalists. And I'm very certain I know no one directly who lives in Finland. So what's going on here?

LinkedIn has made the mistake of confusing contacts with a business network. As a result, they've created a service that is only minimally useful. And it's not a service that many will pay for directly. More importantly, I'm pretty sure I don't want a company to make money by brokering my contacts. So where is the business model? In the months since I have been Linked In, I've been asked fewer than a half-dozen times to make an introduction (purportedly the main goal of identifying these network connections). In none of those instances have I received confirmation that a successful and valuable connection has been made. So why keep up the game?

My theory: We're afraid not to. Social networks play on our desire to be a part of something big. So we join, and we wait for something big to happen. I don't suspect it will. At least not in these large public networks.

An exception to this are private networks designed to help organizations navigate the membership for the benefit of members and the larger organization. Spoke, when sold as enterprise software to enable corporate sales people to leverage client relationships held by others within the organization, is an example of a social networking that works. The implicit relationships among co-workers begin to answer the question of value in leveraging personal networks - if an introduction generates revenue for the organization, then leverage away.

It's not that I haven't found value in my social network experience. I have reconnected with folks in my contact list that I hadn't talked to in years. I've discovered where my contact list needs updating. And, hey, I'm more popular than most of the people I know . . . so what can be wrong with that?

END NOTES

DEMO alum Zinio Systems started off the new year with a new chairman of the board. Mike Perlis, managing partner at SOFTBANK Capital, took the position after having served as an outside director since the company's launch in early 2000. Zinio says Perlis will act as its strategic and market advisor . . . IBM had a great start to the new year. The company announced a significant increase in fourth-quarter revenue and said it would begin to hire thousands of new employees. Big Blue said to expect the company to bring on 15,000 people worldwide, rounding out its workforce at more than 331,000; according to the IDG News Service . . . A new worm is winding its way through the world's networks. Known as both Beagle and Bagle, it is "a mass-mailing worm that accesses remote Web sites and sends email to any addresses it finds." According to Symantec's Web site, the worm is scheduled to end January 28. The anti-virus vendor has posted a removal tool users can download.

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