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The Social Network as a Career Safety Net

The Social Network as a Career Safety Net

IF you have avoided social-networking sites like LinkedIn and Facebook with the excuse that they are the domain of desperate job hunters or attention-seeking teenagers, it’s time to reconsider.

In a world of economic instability and corporate upheaval, savvy professionals like the technology consultant Josh So epitomize the benefits of brushing up your online image and keeping it polished.

When Mr. So, a 32-year-old from Dublin, Calif., learned he had 45 days to find a new job before his company eliminated his division, he turned to friends online.

Within hours of updating his job status on the social-networking site LinkedIn, Mr. So won four job interviews through his contacts there. Within a week, two of the interviews resulted in offers. And within less than a month, his employer counteroffered with a position in another division and a $25,000 bump in his annual salary.

The old business adage that it’s not what you know but who you know takes a twist in the Internet era: it’s what you know about social-networking sites that can get you ahead.

“Build your own inner circle of people you know are good — people you know will get you places,” Mr. So said.

While it lacks the glamour of more popular sites like MySpace and Facebook, LinkedIn “is the place to be,” said the JupiterResearch media analyst Barry Parr, if you want to make professional contacts online. LinkedIn is a “Chamber of Commerce mixer,” he said.

LinkedIn has more than 25 million members, and it is adding new ones at the rate of 1.2 million a month — or about one new networker every two seconds.

With that kind of mass demographic, LinkedIn is hard to ignore. But with that kind of scale, can it be useful? It can be if you use it judiciously.

LinkedIn is intended to appeal to its average user: the 41-year-old white-collar professional with an income of $109,000 a year. User pages are spare: a brief professional summary, a photo and a résumé.

As you create your network, the site shows you people you may know through past jobs or educational institutions. (Facebook also suggests contacts, but it starts with lists from your e-mail or instant messaging accounts.)

And there is a search function so you can find people you don’t know but would like to — for instance, at a company where you want a job.

You might be shy about calling or e-mailing people you have neglected, but the social-networking sites let you avoid that. You are simply renewing the connection when you add a contact.

Bernard Lunn, a Web technology entrepreneur in New York, describes LinkedIn as the ultimate Rolodex.

“I’m no spring chicken,” said Mr. Lunn, 53. “I’ve been in business for almost 30 years. I had lost touch with a lot of people and had spent time in different industries.”

The Web site did the work of finding people for him, providing a list of likely connections by searching its own database of people who had overlapped with him at past jobs. All Mr. Lunn had to do was review the list and select contacts he wanted to add to his network.

“Some of them are now doing very useful jobs,” he said.

That’s the point. You don’t have to fear you’ll be perceived as using them; they are on the site for the same reason. They might well intend to use you.

Even so, don’t go crazy trying to connect with everyone you brushed past in the hallway 20 years ago, or friends of friends. Too many people can weaken your network.

“We try to discourage promiscuous linking,” said Kay Luo, a spokeswoman for LinkedIn.

But don’t be afraid to network strategically. You want to connect to people who can get you jobs. “People usually invite up — people above them in hierarchy,” said Ms. Luo. “When you’re talking about a professional network, quality is so important.”

So if the No. 1 tactic is to connect with people who are useful and successful, how do you make sure you’re one of their worthy connections? There are a few helpful approaches.

Ask for recommendations. Mr. So, who so quickly parlayed his connections into job offers, said that having updated recommendations with his résumé on LinkedIn was crucial to being noticed.

“The only way to get recommendations is to go out and ask for it,” Mr. So said. “It’s kind of a weird system. I typically go to my bosses and peers and say, ‘Do you mind?’ ”

The flipside of that system is that it behooves you to be generous. Jeremiah K. Owyang, senior analyst at Forrester Research, has watched the growth of online social media since 2005 and advises social-networking users to follow an 80-20 rule. “Give information and answer questions 80 percent of the time, and 20 percent of the time ask for help,” he said.

When a contact asks for a recommendation, write it graciously and promptly. If you think that person isn’t worth a recommendation, think again about being connected to that person.

And remember the other social-networking sites. If LinkedIn is the Chamber of Commerce luncheon, then Facebook is the after-hours party (and MySpace is the all-night rave, which may make trolling for business connections there a bit trying). “Facebook seems a more natural way of communicating,” said Debra Aho Williamson, senior analyst for eMarketer in Seattle. “LinkedIn seems more formal.”

Facebook, which began in 2004 as a way for college students to communicate, has more than 80 million active users. The fastest-growing segment is now those 25 years old and older, according to the company.

The site makes it easy to carry on a casual conversation or ask group questions. The easiest way to use it professionally is to join your employer’s network. And it helps to post interesting links that are relevant to your job.

The site features classified ads in the Facebook Marketplace, and there are job-hunting applications on the site, like Jobster. There are also tools for building a professional profile or online business cards. And you can use one of a handful of applications, liked LinkedIn Contacts, to connect your Facebook profile to LinkedIn.

But the social ease of Facebook makes it easy to look frivolous, all of the experts warned. If you tend to overshare, people in your network will quickly learn about the breakup of your marriage or your love of Jell-O shots. (Facebook now offers fine-tuned privacy settings, on the upper right side of the home page.)

So perhaps the best tip of all for online social networking would be: Keep the social separate from the networking.



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