I'm a member of LinkedIn, an online networking group of professionals. It has over 8 million members worldwide and is characterized by the use of "connections" where two individuals agree to connect and, as a result, they make their own lists of connections visible to each other. This "network of trusted relationships" then provides a highway for locating and contacting other people based on the idea that introductions from a "trusted connection" are more likely to be successful than connections attempted between perfect strangers. Whether you are job-seeking or selling, being able to take advantage of trusted relationships is an important benefit.
The former takes the "company" as an important focus, which is not surprising given the massive company database that is at the core of Hoover's services. Here's what the front page of the HooversConnect web site says:
Join your corporate network to automatically connect to people, see your relationship strength and use your corporate network to identify and reach key people at target companies.
This is what Aggreg8 says about itself:
Inside you can keep track of your trusted network, find others through your network with similar interests or situations. Then you can collaborate with anyone in the community inside our working groups. We even allow you to create your own working groups, choosing if you want to collaborate with the whole community or collaborate in private working groups. All the expected tools are there for collaboration, allowing you to create postings, post files, share events.
As I pointed out recently in Are Social Networking and Social Media Threats or Opportunities for Professional Associations? this emerging visibility for social networking has the potential for providing competition to more traditional membership groups such as professional associations and, I suspect, trade associations and public relations operations. It's not only the management of "trusted relationships" that provides the competition, though, it's the associated member activities that are being facilitated, including publishing, discussion forums, meetings, group calendars, and other collaboration-oriented group activities.
Younger professionals especially might be asking themselves, "Why should I pay annual dues to an old fashioned professional or scientific associations when I can use more specialized social networking communities to meet with others who can help me with my career?"
It's not only professional associations that are potentially impacted, it's any group that has traditionally facilitated communication of publishing activities, including primary and secondary publishing, conference organizing, and just about any large consulting or professional services organization that counts on revenue steams from businesses that rely on personal relationships for selling as well as service provision.
One question I have is how long "social networking" can be a viable business given its steady march into the mainstream. As more and more of our personal and online communications become potentially definable, acquirable, and -- what's really important -- sharable in social networking terms, social-networking-enabled communications will become the norm. When that happens, social networking "features" become commodities and, following basic economics, prices are driven down.
We already see social networking features being incorporated into ordinary cell phones (e.g., see Helio and its MySpace connection). How will social networking services suppliers (such as Hoovers, Aggreg8, and LinkedIn) differentiate themselves from the competition when "everyone does social networking"?
I think I have some idea of the answer to that question -- but what do you think?