Why you'll finally use LinkedIn
The buttoned-down social network has a new CEO, a growing membership, and an increasingly-useful set of features.
NEW YORK (Fortune) -- For years, I've been befuddled by LinkedIn. I knew it was supposed to be the social network for work, but to me it was like war. "What is it good for?" I asked myself repeatedly, even as I occasionally poked around and accepted requests to link with people. I belonged to it, but I really didn't know why.
The other day I had a chance to sit down with LinkedIn CEO Dan Nye, who's been on the job since February. He told me about a few changes that Linkedin subsequently announced (VentureBeat has a good description of them.). And his PR person upgraded me to what would otherwise be a paid account. (It can be $20 to $200 per month.)
I have had a revelation. Linkedin isn't bad. For all my well-known (and even ridiculed) enthusiasm for Facebook, Linkedin shows there will be plenty of room for other ways to connect with people on the Web.
Linkedin aims for a much more functional role in your life. While Facebook remains better designed and conceived, in my opinion, it is not likely any time soon to help you find a job, hire a contractor or consultant, or figure out who you should hire for a position.
That's because of two things. First, despite all the criticism of its privacy policies, Facebook is fundamentally based on the notion of privacy. You cannot find out much about someone unless they have willingly elected to be your "friend," or if they are in a partially-open network you also belong to - for your town or workplace or school. The other reason is that Facebook is intended to be a communications medium. Think of it as, in part, a way to broadcast information about yourself.
Linkedin, by contrast, is a sort of high-end consensual database of colleagues. In some ways it aims to turn the entire planet's workforce into one big set of colleagues, who only come to know one another when one can solve a problem for the other. You can look for that job or find that consultant or employee, because Linkedin's member data is essentially open for all to see, and because the site offers search tools to help you slice and dice it. (They are much more sophisticated and useful if you're a paying member.)
In recent months Linkedin has reached a new critical mass. I know this in part because Nye told me the service now has 17 million members, up from only 8 million when he arrived. But I also know it personally because, for example, until very recently it contained hardly any of my classmates from college. While my class only included about 300, now about 40 of them are on Linkedin. (You generally tell the system what class you were in when you join.) And colleagues at Fortune and friends outside the tech industry (Linkedin's initial user base) are joining quickly.
"We are focused on Linkedin as a productivity tool," says Nye. "We don't want to be compared to other sites that are just about pageviews and frequency of use. We want to give you the information you need to do your job better." As for Facebook, he says "It makes sense to keep your personal and your professional lives separate."
That last one I frankly doubt, in an era when the line between the two is so gray. Facebook will become more functional as it adds features that enable us to slice and dice our relationships to more accurately reflect the fact that one "friend" is a PR person who calls to pitch me a lot and the other is my brother. But Linkedin will remain useful, albeit not so often nor so enjoyably.
Nye said that if you were seeking a "product manager with an MBA trained in Six Sigma who lives in Cincinnati" you'd probably find six. I did that exact search, and actually found one.
Nye himself wanted to hire a former Procter & Gamble marketer who had been in Silicon Valley for a while. Using Linkedin, he claims he found eight names immediately and within half an hour was on the phone with one he had quickly vetted by e-mailing mutual friends (LinkedIn tracks those very well).
LinkedIn also enables you to ask questions either of specific members or the whole hoi polloi. You could, for example, ask an HR manager at a company similar to yours if your salary is fair.
A new interface design, still in beta, is an overdue and attractive visual upgrade. With the latest features, Linkedin aims to become more of a portal drawing users back daily. One, launched in partnership with Business Week, allows you to read a news item and examine names and companies mentioned through the lens of your own connectedness. (Nye recited the depressing figure that only 30 percent of LinkedIn's members have read any business magazine in the last 30 days.)
Maybe that's why people recently found credible a rumor that News Corp. was angling to buy the service, which Nye has said would not sell for less than $1 billion. But a very senior News Corp. executive I spoke with says there is "no way" the company would ever be interested in paying nearly that much.
But LinkedIn has established a key position in the business ecosystem. If it keeps developing its functionality, and especially if it reduces its fees, which are ridiculously high for anyone who is not either hiring or looking for work, I see a bright future. It will further speed the pace of commerce by helping us all better find the people we need to get work done.