Social Networking Tools on the Road to Enlightenment

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Emerging forms of online collaboration and social networking foreshadow an always-connected future and perhaps the biggest change in communication in a century. The tools may now focus on accelerating individual careers, but new tools and solutions are coming online that will connect people based on their knowledge and talents, to unleash innovation and create new forms of content.

Scores of organizations already use tools such as wikis (group-editable web pages) to turbocharge collaboration. But an increasing number are taking this networking to the next level, leveraging social-networking services to foster professional relationships, dig up sales leads, identify hiring prospects, and more—all by leveraging the collective contacts of colleagues.

Corporate-oriented services such as Visible Path, Ryze, and openBC are gaining traction, as people seek to tap invisible social networks to yield visible results. Leading the pack is LinkedIn, a global online network of more than 6 million professionals representing 130 industries. LinkedIn enables people to post career profiles, find prospective employees, and discover inside connections within three degrees of separation who can help them land jobs and close deals.

For Konstantin Guericke, LinkedIn cofounder, social networking is about building and cultivating relationships. In his view, people-search is the platform; the value is in applications that harness social networks to do much more. An example of this is LinkedIn Services, a new feature that enables members to find service providers, such as lawyers and consultants, recommended by the people they know. "The focus is to reinvent the Yellow Pages," Guericke says. "There's a lot of innovation we can bring to the table to help people find and connect with the best person in marketing or patent law, based on the metric that people trust."

LinkedIn is also extending its reach to professional groups, such as alumni and workgroups, with LinkedIn for Groups. The service provides group members standard LinkedIn services as well as a few extra features for networking and strengthening interconnections between members, such as the ability to communicate directly with fellow members.

Putting the Pieces Together
Not all social networking companies have built their bottom line on connecting people to advance their careers. Some have discovered that social networking also provides the basis for much more compelling services that allow members to share and connect around information that matters.

One such company is Jigsaw Data Corporation, which offers an online business contact marketplace that allows people to buy and sell business contact information. "We're not a social networking company that focuses on the ‘me,'" explains Jim Fowler, CEO and co-founder of Jigsaw Data Corporation. "We harness the ‘us'—the collective knowledge and contributions of our community—to create better information for the good of the group."

The result is a peer-produced and maintained online database of more than 3.5 million contacts ranging from C-level to mid-management and director-level employees at more than 340,000 companies. Each contact lists the individual's name, title, address, fixed-line phone number, and email address.

The user-generated database grows by some 12,000 new contacts daily, but it's not just about building a better rolodex. Jigsaw members commit to manage contacts throughout their lifecycle, adding and cleaning contacts in return for points they can either use to buy desired contact data or sell to other members who need points to buy their own contacts.

According to this "pay or play" model, members may either pay $25 per month for the service, or play by adding 25 new contacts every month. Jigsaw points are the currency of the marketplace. "Members earn points by entering new contacts, updating existing contacts, or referring members to Jigsaw," Fowler explains. Points are also deducted as "penalty points" when a member adds inaccurate information or performs an action detrimental to the database. "In this way, the system is self-organizing and self-correcting," he says.

Fowler is a firm believer in the ideas expressed in James Surowiecki's milestone book The Wisdom of Crowds, which hypothesizes that a large group of people are smarter than an elite few and are "better at solving problems, fostering innovation, coming to wise decisions, even predicting the future."

Inspired by Surowiecki's theory, Jigsaw enables its members to challenge company information and compile this data to provide a collective educated estimate on criteria such as company revenue and number of employees. These criteria can be used as search parameters within the database. Members can also save their search queries and be notified via email when new contacts who match their search criteria are added to the Jigsaw marketplace. 

Once the Jigsaw community has effectively mapped the world's organizations, the company plans to add meta data to the mix, allowing members to both flesh out the details of business contacts and share information about themselves with other community members. "We plan to do to the data industry what Wikipedia is in the process of doing to the Encyclopedia Britannica," Fowler says. "If we all bring a few pieces of the puzzle we can create a far richer, deeper, and broader database than any sole proprietary organization can produce on its own."  

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