Tom Davenport has been writing about online social networking lately, mostly appearing the curmudgeon, such as in LinkedIn Is Not a Social Network.
A couple of posts back I argued that social networking sites (Facebook, MySpace, etc.) should remain social and not be co-opted for business purposes. ...
Several [commenters] mentioned LinkedIn as the obvious counterexample to my argument. First, LinkedIn is explicitly for business purposes, so it's not social networking. Secondly, I would argue that LinkedIn isn't terribly useful unless you are seeking a job or a favor from someone you don't know. That, to me, shouldn't be the purpose of business networking.
Davenport goes on to describe being at a conference where a speaker asked how many attendees were on LinkedIn (nearly all), and how many had "gotten value" from LinkedIn (one person).
And he clearly states his definition of social networks as a function of reciprocity, suggesting that most of the tools don't make this function particularly easier, so they aren't social networking tools. The problem is that I cannot get reciprocity (social or business) without knowing what people in my network are doing.
These tools give me a few things. I have access to a much wider network of people - even my direct connections are greater than those I meet on a regular basis. I don't have to see you to find out what's happening with my network. Depending on the tool, I get an idea of what you are doing in a general sense. I might learn that you've taken a new job, are looking for furniture, just came back from an interesting conference, will be attending the same event as me next week. As a result of all this, when I come across information or people that could be valuable to you, I am much more likely to help you out because I know what's happening with you.
Is there value in this? Of course. I think people have a hard time picturing value received from social networking tools because the activity-to-dollars connection isn't obvious. I wonder how much direct value people get from attending in-person networking events. One of the big aspects of networking of any kind is learning who people are and what makes them tick. We do this with our friends at movies, out to dinner, over coffee, etc. With business colleagues, it is the water-cooler conversations or lunch or the encounters in the hallway or the chatter before meetings. Even if we are strictly business colleagues, I am happy to provide you personal help, but only if I know about your interests.