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Should I join an online social network?

How effective is it to join and network with other folks through the new online social and business networking sites? Some of these register you by the school you went to, others based on your interests, and yet others are purely social or business in nature. What do you think? Should I join?

Nick's Reply
These networks take names. Some want all your "connections": schools you attended, the church and professional groups you belong to. Some want the names of all your friends and family, and all the people you've ever worked with. Others want everybody in your Outlook address book. Algorithms kick in to find relationships among all these nodes. Then the payoff comes when the network delivers the e-mail address of a thrice-removed contact who can put you in direct touch with Kevin Bacon.

These networks go by various names, and they claim to foster different kinds of "connections" -- to help old classmates get reacquainted, to cultivate sewing circles, to stimulate business leads, to manage e-mail addresses, and to help you find a job. (Some of the originals merely helped you get a date.) They are all generally referred to as "online social networks".

As these networks reach critical mass, they will provide us with any and all contacts we could possibly need. The old George Carlin joke will take on new meaning: "Suppose you could have EVERYTHING IN THE WORLD! Where would you put it?" Well, soon you'll have EVERY CONTACT IN THE WORLD. You will be able to get in touch with EVERY PERSON IN EVERY COMPANY you'd like to work for.

This model isn't new, of course. You already have access to EVERY JOB IN THE WORLD, right online in a couple of huge "online job networks" -- you know, where you found your last job.

If you're going to use the social networks, I suggest you get a move on. You don't want to be left out. As more people join, and all possible "screen names" are used up, everyone will just go by their Social Security Number, which will have been compromised so many times that the only agency that will stop using it is the Internal Revenue Service. Soon everyone will belong to one network or another, and anyone will be -- at most -- six clicks away from everyone else. The small social networks will of course merge into big ones, and the big ones will merge into the aw-shucks, everything's-confidential All There Is Data Base operated by The Social Network. (As you may have realized, the I.R.S. will have to change its name. And, unable to rely on your SSN, The Social Network will assign you a check-sum digit that represents all the data that's on file about you.) George Carlin will arch an eyebrow and smile a wry smile.

Think of it: Telemarketers and spam will become a thing of the past. Sales reps -- all of them now your new friends -- will click six times and your account will be automatically dinged for Viagra, colon cleaners, aluminum siding, and time-share vacations. Identity theft will be a footnote in history books. All money and identities will be pooled because we're all connected. No one will be allowed to work, because who can work when they're busy taking calls and answering e-mails from new-found friends they didn't know they had?

All right; enough. The online social networks will most likely pay off for one group of people: those who are very good at making cold calls. For fearless sales reps, the social networks will be a goldmine. But I just get burned up when I see silly technologies performing silly tricks with the promise of fostering profound social change. If you're really interested in separating the myths from the truths about networking, take time to read Duncan J. Watts' excellent book, Six Degrees: The science of a connected age. Watts discusses what networks really are, how they work, and under what circumstances they actually pay off. I promise you will walk away surprised.

If you're going to pursue contacts online, seek out substance. Join one of the free online discussion groups related to your work and interests. You'll find these on the web sites of industry publications, professional associations, and other vibrant communities where people form relationships -- not "links". You see, it's not a question of how many links or nodes you can identify and tap. It's about how those links were formed to begin with, and what you put into them.

Here's the deal. I don't care who you know who knows someone who knows me. All I want to know is, do you have something to say to me that I want to hear?

Nick Corcodilos
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