Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Is there a good professional social networking website?

I've been on Facebook and a few other social websites for a while, but not any self-consciously "professional" social networking site. So I tried LinkedIn, which seems to be the most prominent one, and also LegallyMinded, which is trying to fill the "law" sub-niche within the niche of professional social websites. At the risk of being extremely boring, I'm going to go ahead and tell you what I think of the two sites so far.

First I tried LegallyMinded. It's a brand-new site run by the American Bar Association (ABA), apparently launched in late December -- it's like a Facebook for the legal community. I hate to judge something so new and well-intentioned, but it seems like a ramshackle affair.

It's missing a lot of urgently needed features, like the ability to list what city/state/country you live in and be searched through this information. Right now you can only list yourself as being in the United States "South," "Northeast," "West," or "Midwest," or outside the United States. That's it -- if you're not in the US, that's your region. There's no difference between living in Britain or South Africa or Afghanistan or Brazil -- that's all just the "international" "region."

There are lots of other problems with their interface -- the process of filling in your profile is very counterintuitive -- but it's not worth describing all of them.

In the few weeks since they had their grand launch, I've checked back now and then, and I can't remember noticing any new content. For instance, there's a section for user-created blogs, and it doesn't seem to have a single new post by anyone on any blog since the site was launched. There's no sense of growth, change, progress, momentum. They want to have that Facebook look, but if you log in thinking, "I wonder what's new here..." the answer seems likely to be, "Eh ... not much."

So it looks like LegallyMinded is probably out.

Now I'm trying LinkedIn. I put up a rough profile, and that seemed to go pretty well. But I got stuck on adding contacts.

The first thing that jumps out at me is that they have one of those things where you enter your Gmail address and password and then get a list of people in your email address book who are on the site. So I go through and click about 10 people's names just to get started with some connections. Aaaand ... all that info gets wiped out. After I selected their names and clicked "invite" (which seemed to be the only option once you'd selected people), it just sent me to some other screen that didn't seem related. When I went to look at my "Contacts," it was showing zero.

So I try something else -- looking through the same list of my email contacts, but clicking people's actual names instead of the checkboxes next to their names. That will take you to the person's profile. From there, it seems like you're supposed to click "Add ____ to your network." So I click that, which takes me to a new page, "Invite ____ to connect on LinkedIn." I still don't know if they're using "invite" to mean invite them to be my contact or invite them to join the website. The word "invite" suggests the latter, but that doesn't make sense, since they're already on LinkedIn.

That "invite" page asks for this person's email address, and also says: "Include a personal note: (optional)." Oh, so it's optional -- well, then I'll skip that. I just want to send out this invite, and it's taking too long already. (I still don't know why I can't add multiple people in a list, the way it initially looked like I could do.) So I leave the "personal note" section blank, enter ____'s email address and click "invite." But oh! what's this?! A big X in a red circle at the top of the page, with a message in bold red: "Please correct the marked field(s) below." The marked field below is the "Include a personal note: (optional)" field, which now has a new line of text added to it: "Please enter a note to your friend or colleague." This isn't just a friendly suggestion -- try as I might, I cannot send this invite without filling in that form.

So, LinkedIn has decided to really stretch the meaning of "optional."

Anyway, I type a little something in that form and click "invite." As far as I can tell, this accomplishes nothing. I look at my list of "contacts" -- zero. Oh, isn't that because I've invited them but they still have to accept? But my list of "invites" is empty too. Later on, I did get people accepting my invites, so apparently it worked ... but I tried so many different methods I'm not sure which one actually worked.

I'm also wary of social websites that have "features" that involve creative new ways to block information from people. As I understand it, there's a complicated set of hurdles you need to clear to contact certain people on LinkedIn. That rubs me the wrong way, but I'll have to try it out firsthand.

One more thing about LinkedIn: as I said, it has a "find your contacts" feature, with an impressive-looking array of pre-existing "address books" you can "import." There's Gmail and a lot of other email services. But of course, they leave out what could have been the richest source of online contacts: Facebook. It's more and more common to be in touch with a friend online, even communicating with them on a regular basis, without ever bothering with their "email address." Though LinkedIn presents itself as a social/professional online powerhouse, it hopes you won't notice that people don't exclusively make online contact through email and LinkedIn. If it acknowledged the existence of other similar sites, it would be advertising those sites, which would detract from its own site. But would it? It's hard to imagine that there'd be much of a real negative effect that would outweigh the positive synergistic effect of allowing a flow of contact information from one site to the other. [ADDED: On second thought, it seems more likely that LinkedIn realizes it would benefit from allowing users to import their Facebook contacts, and that Facebook is the one preventing this from happening.]

To recap:

LegallyMinded -- seems to be a lost cause. I imagine I'll phase this out unless I see some kind of dramatic change.

LinkedIn -- worth sticking with, mostly because it's going to have more people (both people I already know and strangers) than any other similar site. But what I've seen so far leaves me skeptical.

UPDATE: Someone found this post by searching for the phrase "aba's social network fails to connect."

Validation through search terms!

But I take it this person was trying to find this post from another website:

ABA's Social Network Fails to Connect

The ABA's new social network, LegallyMinded, attempts to combine the best features of the top social networking sites with substantive legal information from the ABA's library. Its lack of user connectivity makes it fall short as a social network....
Yeah, "lack of user connectivity" -- i.e. not a good website.

(Photo of LinkedIn logo from LinkedIn Blog.)