You oughta be in Facebook

Social networking sites aren't just for teens to swap photos and gossip anymore. They're a great way for adults to set up and maintain professional ties.

By Dan Kadlec, Money Magazine contributing writer

NEW YORK (Money Magazine) -- Not a week goes by, it seems, that someone from my past doesn't invite me to join the ranks on the professional networking site LinkedIn. I get pinged by old girlfriends, former classmates and onetime colleagues. I've never felt so wanted.

You probably get your fair share of invites too - if not on LinkedIn, then on Facebook or a similar site. If you're like me, you don't have a clue whether this is an opportunity or a headache, or how you should respond.

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Dan Kadlec is co-author of The Power Years, a guide for boomers. E-mail him at boom_years@moneymail.com.

But it's worth figuring out. Web meeting grounds aren't just for teens to swap photos and gossip anymore. They're a quickly expanding way for grown-ups to maintain and expand their professional networks.

For boomers that's critical. At 45-plus you're more likely than ever to strike out on your own (voluntarily or because of downsizing), losing valuable office connections. Online networks can help fill that gap.

And if you still work for The Man, these networks can help you stay abreast of other opportunities, find an expert to help you with a specific business issue, and show potential employers that you're up on the latest tech tools.

Boomers are used to tech-driven workplace change. We embraced the virtual office and are adapting to today's always-on BlackBerry culture. Professional networking online is our next hurdle. Think of these groups as a digital cocktail party that never ends - but where no one drinks too much and everyone in the room is hell-bent on getting ahead.

To make the most of an online network, consider these questions:

What are the options? There are a handful of Web sites devoted solely to business networking, including Ryze and upstart Doostang. But Facebook and LinkedIn have the biggest buzz, albeit for different purposes.

Facebook is primarily a social site; formerly mostly an online hangout for college kids, it's now used increasingly by professionals to connect with colleagues, former colleagues and friends. The site is fun and addictive but also cluttered and not easily searched.

LinkedIn is strictly for managing business ties; the goal is to provide fast, precise, work-related information.

Which one is the best? The power of these networks is in their size. So follow the buzz. Facebook and LinkedIn are where your friends and contacts are most likely to be. Recruiters actively troll both sites to fill jobs. Work both if you have the time. Otherwise, focus on the one where more people you know are members.

How do the sites work? Once you join a network, you can link to friends, friends of friends, their friends and so on. When you're looking for, say, advice or entrée to a particular company, you can search your network for people who might be able to help, then ask your link (the person who knows you both) to introduce you.

You then communicate with your new contact through e-mail or even, gasp, a telephone. If anyone in the network seeks your help, you'll get an e-mail notification from the site and you can choose to respond or not.

How do you manage the network? Keep it focused, advises Kay Luo, spokeswoman for LinkedIn. Link to just the people you would be happy to help and who would be happy to help you. Log in only when you are seeking help or want to update your profile, though you may want to check in more often to see who's up to what.

And please, keep your profile professional. After all, if you're going to reach out to folks who can open doors for you, you shouldn't be posting risqué photos or politically incorrect comments where they may see them. That's the digital equivalent of spilling your drink on the hiring manager. Top of page

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Most stock quote data provided by BATS. Market indices are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer.

Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Factset: FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved.

Chicago Mercantile Association: Certain market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved.

Dow Jones: The Dow Jones branded indices are proprietary to and are calculated, distributed and marketed by DJI Opco, a subsidiary of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and have been licensed for use to S&P Opco, LLC and CNN. Standard & Poor's and S&P are registered trademarks of Standard & Poor’s Financial Services LLC and Dow Jones is a registered trademark of Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC. All content of the Dow Jones branded indices © S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC 2014 and/or its affiliates.