“MySpace for Professionals”: A Social Networking Site Geared for Careerists

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I’m kind of dense. Despite my 15 years in the journalism biz, I sometimes don’t recognize a news story until it hits me over the head–a few times. Typically, the magic number is three. So when I realized today that I had heard about this new workplace tool three times in as many days, I thought I should check it out.

The tool is called LinkedIn. It’s a social networking site for grown-ups–a MySpace for professionals, if you will–that’s gaining a small but steady following. John Challenger of outplacement consultants Challenger, Gray & Christmas first mentioned it to me during our interview on Friday, when he forecast that sites like LinkedIn would take off this year as a job-hunting tool. On the same day, I received a press release from the company, touting its recent growth. Then today, Sree Sreenivasan, the multimedia tech guru and dean of students at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, sent me a link to his column on Poynter.org explaining how LinkedIn helps him track and expand his voluminous contacts.

Sree explains the nuts and bolts:

You first create a free account, then fill out a profile of yourself and then explore the “find people” space to see which of your contacts is already in LinkedIn. Then you can ask them to connect with you. Once they do, they become your “first-degree” connections and their connections become part of your network, as “second-degree” connections.

The connections of those second-degree folks become your “third-degree connections.” All of this is done through the system. My math’s no good, but it adds up fast. As of this writing, I have 317 direct connections; 43,000 second-degree connections and 1.4 million-plus connections in my network. I can search my network and contact anyone on it, but the reason the system works is that I can only connect with my direct connections directly. Everyone else has to be connected through the folks I know. They hear only from people they already know directly. So it’s basically friends — or acquaintances — making the initial connection.

Got it? And here’s the juicy part:

LinkedIn is particularly useful when you are looking for a job. Knowing someone who works in the same division of a company you are interested in can help you get background information or get your resume to the right person. Nowadays, when someone asks me for contacts at a media outlet, I tell them to join LinkedIn, connect with me there and search my contacts. They use the system to send my contacts a message via me. I then judiciously decide whether to forward the message or not. I have declined to forward messages in some cases when the contact would not be appropriate. In the old days (i.e., last year), I would have just c.c.-ed my contact and the job seeker. I still do that, on occasion, with very good friends, but this way is better so that the contact can decide whether he/she wants to respond, without the job seeker automatically getting hold of his or her e-mail address.

I decided to give it a whirl. I went to LinkedIn’s cleanly designed web site. There I signed up for free, logging in such nonintrusive basic info as my name and zip code as well as where I went to school and my line of work. Then the site asked me how I intend to use the site: did I mean to reconnect with old colleagues, and/or find a new job? Did I want people to contact me with deals for my company, and/or to pitch consulting gigs?

Then you get to the tedious part, at least for me, which is entering your contacts/colleagues/classmates. I’ll get around to this. Meantime, LinkedIn explains through little diagrams, each contact can lead to exponentially more contacts (as John Challenger put it, it’s like “your Microsoft Outlook Rolodex–squared”).

LinkedIn has 8.5 million users, which shrivels in comparison to the 150 million who reportedly use MySpace. Its limited reach is clear; though LinkedIn can search its database to find your old colleagues, it appears nobody at any of my six previous and current employers are on the network. Recruiters are just starting to sign on to LinkedIn, which means they aren’t likely to come looking for me there. In contrast, biggies like Ernst & Young and Microsoft have Facebook pages intended to help fill thousands of openings, according to this Wall Street Journal article.

But LinkedIn is a totally different animal than those social sites, argues Keith Rabois, vice president of business and corporate development for the company. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., LinkedIn launched its site in May 2003 to target what its founders envisioned were millions of hard-working, salary-earning folks without the time or inclination to maintain social networks online–but who would benefit from keeping and expanding their professional networks in a similar fashion.

“The world is moving to a free-agent nation,” says Rabois. “Specifically, individual employees are no longer spending 40 years at the same company. Every individual today is creating a mini brand. No product existed anywhere back in 2003 that allowed professionals to manage that personal brand.”

How will it help job seekers? “Imagine you want a job at Google. I heard they had 100,000 resumés sent to them last year. The way to separate yourself from that massive pile of resumés is you find someone working at Google in your network, in the same type of role. Ask him to give you specific guidance. Better yet, maybe he’ll walk your resumé over to the hiring manager’s desk. Everyone knows that’s the best way to get a job. And that’s what we do in scale.”

So far, most LinkedIn users come from IT backgrounds, followed by those in financial services, then management consultants. “We have executive-level people at 499 of the Fortune 500 companies,” says Rabois. (The missing link: Auto Owners Insurance, “which I didn’t even know was in the 500.”)

I better get cracking on those contacts. There’s word of coming layoffs at my company, and maybe there’s a job for me sweeping floors at Google.