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Last Updated: March 25, 2008: 1:55 PM EDT
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Web 2.0 gets down to business

Business people find ways to save time and make money from social software pioneered by their kids.

By David Kirkpatrick, senior editor

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(Fortune) -- Remember where electronic mail was 15 years ago? If you didn't already have an e-mail address, you probably knew someone who did. And if you were sending and receiving e-mail, you'd probably discovered that it could be a game-changing business tool.

That's roughly where the services known collectively as Web 2.0 are today. These are sometimes defined as web activities that get more valuable the more people use them.

Social networks like MySpace and Facebook are the most familiar examples, but new Web 2.0 companies you've never heard of emerge almost daily, creating what is, in effect, a continuous stream of interlinked data, some of which may be about your company, your business contacts, or even about you.

How can you get started? We surveyed some executives who use Web 2.0 services every day and came up with a few suggestions.

LinkedIn

This is probably the easiest Web 2.0 tool to integrate into your day-to-day operations, because it's built around the business résumé. In Silicon Valley it's become the usual method for finding and filling jobs; Facebook hired many of its early employees through LinkedIn.

To get going, you just enter your curriculum vitae, search for the names of people you know and trust, and invite them to "connect" to you. For $20 per month you get access to premium features, such as the ability to search for people who have worked for a competitor.

There are plenty of other sites that offer business-specific networking tools, but with 20 million registered users, LinkedIn is by far the largest and busiest; it draws five million visitors per month and doubled in size last year. Carter Lusher, a technology consultant based in Menlo Park, Calif., is particularly taken with a feature that allows him to pose questions to anyone in his LinkedIn network. He recently asked his contacts what they thought about analysts and consultants, like him, who blog. (One blunt reply: They're "talking balderdash.")

Facebook

With roots on college campuses, this site may be a little harder for busy executives to appreciate. But more and more are climbing aboard, establishing profiles and "friending" people just like their teenage children (who generally revile Mom or Dad for invading their domain). Forrester (FORR) CEO George Colony thinks every marketer should be using Facebook, if only to see what its 67 million members are up to.

Plenty of corporations already have a presence there. Procter & Gamble's (PG, Fortune 500) network on Facebook has 10,200 members. The Ernst & Young Careers group has 13,400.IBM's (IBM, Fortune 500) has 33,000; the company uses it for everything from staying in touch with alumni to setting up private groups for online collaboration.

Twitter

A relative of the IM (instant message) and diminutive cousin of the blog, Twitter is a free service that encourages members to broadcast moment-to-moment updates of what they're doing or thinking in 140 characters or less. It sounds like a recipe for information overload - and it can quickly become just that.

But if you carefully pick which Twitterers you follow, it can be a pipeline into the private thoughts of whatever subculture you zero in on, from coffee aficionados to Rush Limbaugh dittoheads. With a service called Twitterscan you can even search the tweet-stream by company name.

Blip.tv, a New York-based Internet video startup, uses Twitter to eavesdrop on its customers. In January it started hearing complaints there about one part of its service, a problem it quickly corrected.

"You have to know what people are saying about you," says Dina Kaplan, Blip.tv's COO. "If we hadn't seen those Twitters, we might not have fixed that problem for six months."

Dopplr

J.P. Rangaswami, who oversees 4,000 people as a managing director at BT, has become a heavy user of this tool for sharing travel itineraries. (He also has 500 friends in Facebook and follows 300 on Twitter.) Before Dopplr, which launched last December, it took repeated e-mails to keep contacts informed of his whereabouts. Now his 140 Dopplr contacts know where he is at any moment.

"You can really optimize your time when traveling," says Rangaswami. One Dopplr friend recently saw he was going to Dublin and out of the blue recommended a good Indian restaurant.

Dick O'Neill, a former Pentagon strategist who now runs a think tank called the Highlands Forum, tracks about 115 mostly professional friends on Dopplr, even when he's not traveling.

"My business is about new ideas," he says. "I want to know when colleagues come to town because I need to keep up with what they're thinking."

Want more?

There's plenty. Ning and Basecamp let businesses set up in-house social networks. Jigsaw invites you to upload and publish your collection of business cards. At Jobscore you and other executives can swap the résumés of job candidates you don't hire.

It's all about connections. Dive in.

Check out Kirkpatrick's column at fortune.com/fastforward for additional Web 2.0 tips.  To top of page

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