Carl Taibl is a big believer in the power of personal contacts — even if those contacts don’t know who the heck he is. Taibl, a CPA with San Ramon, California-based accounting firm Armanino McKenna LLP, has for the past five years been a regular user of LinkedIn, a popular social-networking site geared to professional users. The CPA goes onto the Website to conduct research and establish connections with other LinkedIn members. “If there’s a company I want to learn more about I see if someone one or two degrees of separation away works there and can get me an introduction” says Taibl. “It’s very useful, particularly if you don’t know anyone at a company you’re targeting.”
Taibl is not alone. Business executives are increasingly turning to social-networking sites to pitch potential partners, make introductions, or pry away employees. Scores of commerce-aimed virtual communities have sprung up, including Ryze, Xing (formerly OpenBc), Ecademy, Hoover’s Connect, Spoke, and Vshake. While the sites are dwarfed by the largest social nets (MySpace claims 38 million unique users), these commercial sites are getting bigger. LinkedIn boasts 8.5 million registered members. David Card, a senior analyst at Jupiter Research in New York, says size isn’t the only thing to consider when assessing a business-networking site. “There’s value to exclusivity,” he says, “if you can actually pull it off.”
And therein lies one of the problems with social networks: in some cases, it’s hard to know if the person on the other end of the E-mail is who he says he is. “Anyone can go to any social-networking site and say he’s Bill Gates and claim to know people he doesn’t really know,” says Vshake founder Sagi Richberg.
What’s more, the big selling point of many social networks — access to a larger online community — can also end up being something of a drawback. Indeed, some site members complain about getting too many unwanted E-mail requests. Lawrence Husick, a patent attorney with Lipton, Weinberger & Husick in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, says it becomes “a challenge and a burden to determine whether you have the time and interest to evaluate and pass on a referral,” particularly as you get more distant contacts. As he sees it, social networking can quickly devolve into “social pestering.”
Sites like LinkedIn try to skirt these problems by limiting contacts to “trusted” friends or acquaintances — that is, hooking up users to those who want to be connected and connecting only to friends of friends.
Vshake, launched in June and based in Ashland, Massachusetts, lets users charge for their information and contacts, with the site operators taking a 10 percent cut. To prevent pretexting, Vshake offers an optional verification system. Currently, the site has 2,000 members. In fact, the audience may be a little too exclusive. “There has to be some balance between viral marketing and reasonably managed growth,” says Husick. “Vshake needs to be ramped up a little for real value.”