Online social networking was once something mostly left to kids looking for the next hot band or hot date. It was not an avid pursuit for Kevin Kimball, a 56-year-old who had only dabbled in a few such sites until last fall. Then the Silicon Valley resident lost his job in the high-tech industry as the economy headed into a free-fall. "That's when I took the deep dive," he says of online networking. In a cold economy, he's heating up links to friends and colleagues as he pursues contacts at companies that are hiring. "It's now something I use every day," Kimball says.
He's just one among millions. Registrations at leading professional networking sites are exploding amid the nation's worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. LinkedIn, the best-known site for connecting those with jobs and those looking for work, was adding about 1 million users a month for most of last year. Then the economy began its meltdown in September. "That's when things went through the roof," says Krista Canfield, a career expert and spokeswoman at LinkedIn. The site is now adding a million new members every two weeks. More than 37 million have signed up worldwide. "It isn't just job hunters, either," Canfield says. "This economy has been a wake-up call for a lot of folks."
Amid the burgeoning interest, professionals are finding a similar surge in online tools they can use. Job hunters and advertisers are invading social sites like Facebook, lawyers are discovering like-minded colleagues on Twitter, and top managers are getting tips from peers at Meet the Boss. That site restricts membership to financial executives, usually at the C level (as in "chief"), and is one of a number of more focused communities that are springing up. Epernicus is for scientists. Graduate Junction caters to graduate students; for those already out of school, MyWorkster connects professionals with fellow alumni. At the other end of the hiring process, Jobvite helps companies tap the power of social networks to find the best referrals for their available jobs.
In short, online networking tools are surging at a time when we need them. The Web enables us to push beyond the 12 or 15 best friends that anthropologists say we typically have or even the 150 that we can maintain as steady acquaintances. "The reason the Web is so effective is because you don't have to know people intimately to connect with them," says Matthew Fraser, coauthor of Throwing Sheep in the Boardroom: How Online Social Networking Will Transform Your Life, Work and World.
Fraser's book explains, for example, how Web networking reflects groundbreaking social research of the 1970s that showed how careers advance almost wholly through weak ties—friends of friends—rather than tightly knit networks of cronies. Fraser calls it the "kindness of strangers." It is remarkable how people will help each other, share information directly, or otherwise post it for people they scarcely know or don't know, he says: "There simply is no way that those same people could have been helpful to us in the real world without these online networks."
Not that anyone is suggesting we abandon real-world tools. As anyone who has tried online dating sites can attest, the impact of electronic communication pales next to the power of a voice or the chemistry of a person's presence. Some even discount the value of online networks for building their careers or businesses. New York City lawyer Scott Greenfield scoffs at the rising cadre of attorneys he sees on Twitter, for example, where they trade snippets about legal precedents and the course of their practices. Too many, he says, are simply hunting for business and referrals. "Most of what I've learned is that there are a lot of desperate lawyers out there," Greenfield says of his "reluctant" dip into Twitter.
Web tools go beyond networking and job hunting. UpMo is among those selling online career coaching. The start-up links users to profiles of others who have achieved success in a given field, providing a career to model. The service, which is free during beta testing with fees to follow, also relates contacts to a career plan. Based on the user's goals, it prods periodic exchanges, whether it's a simple E-mail update or an in-person lunch date. Reminders are persistent, if gentle. The nudges and guidance might be a particular help to young professionals. Recent law school graduate Christine Eichinger is using UpMo as she looks to grab her first career rung. "I have a whole new appreciation now for the art of networking," the Chicagoan says.