Staffan Sandberg will soon be hopping a plane from Sweden to Boston to see someone he's only met online. But it's not a romantic rendezvous; it's a job interview he's coming for.
After seven years abroad producing television programs and helping some high-tech start-ups, Mr. Sandberg has decided to come back to the United States. And making contacts for jobs got a whole lot easier recently when a friend invited him to join LinkedIn, an online networking site.
By connecting him to friends of friends of friends, LinkedIn has given Sandberg access to companies he hadn't even heard of before. So far, "every one of my requests [for referrals] has led to either a meeting, an interview, or ... new contacts," he writes in an e-mail interview. Compared with the old way of networking, "this is a lot more efficient and discreet."
Networking sites are quickly becoming a mainstream way to find jobs or employees, make deals, and meet mentors. Several million people have raced to link up everyone in their little black books on the Internet. But as the technology evolves, others are hesitant, wondering whether these virtual webs will sufficiently protect against a flood of e-mails or a loss of privacy. Some think the quality of their relationships will be diluted by being digitized. And it's not clear whether the chasm between the haves and have-nots - in terms of the advantages of networking skills - will narrow or widen.
The other unknown is whether sites will continue to attract users as they start adding charges for certain services. But online networking has come a long way since SixDegrees.com tried it in the mid-1990s and folded a few years later. Now the Internet is faster and offers more sophisticated functions, and the popularity of other online activities has wrought a massive change in attitudes: Buyers and sellers have been connected through eBay, boyfriends and girlfriends through Friendster, and Deaniacs through assorted blogs.
"We have become convinced as a society, reluctantly ... that if people can build a close enough relationship to propose marriage without having met face to face ... then surely we can build the kind of relationships that allow us to hire someone for a six-figure position," says Scott Allen, coauthor of the forthcoming book "The Virtual Handshake."
The concept raises a classic dilemma: quality versus quantity. "With face-to-face networking, you get much greater depth to your relationships, but it takes so much longer, so your circle cannot be as great," says Steven Rothberg, president of CollegeRecruiter.com in Minneapolis. "My concern is, if each of those hundreds of relationships [created online] aren't meaningful individually, why would any one of [those people] be inclined to stick their neck out to help you?"
Founders and users of the sites say they supplement face-to-face interactions, revealing new layers of connections. Online introductions are typically followed by in-person meetings, says Margarita Quihuis. As founding director of the Women's Technology Cluster in San Francisco, she's part of the networking circles in Silicon Valley. After posting her profile on LinkedIn, she was discovered by another member whose organization named Ms. Quihuis one of the 21 leaders for the 21st century.
Online networking doesn't diminish the quality of relationships, Quihuis says. "It's kind of like living in a really small town, where old-fashioned notions like reputation and character really come to the forefront. We're kind of moving away from this urban anonymity where what we do doesn't matter."
On Ryze.com, another networking site, one member threatened to tell others about a fellow member who didn't pay her promptly for a project. During a panel discussion in February, Ryze founder Adrian Scott also told of a hiring manager who checked with other "Ryzers" who knew a job candidate. Negative feedback led the manager to hire someone else.
When people say they're worried about their privacy, Mr. Allen tries to inform them gently that the train has already left the station. He tells of a man who thought that very little information about him was available online. In a 15-minute Internet search, Allen found the man's home address, phone number, income, two former employers, and one activity he pursued outside work. "Simply being online is not likely to make you a target," he says.
Once people decide they're ready to try online networking, they need to think about which of more than a dozen sites would be a good fit. Some are open to anyone.
On Tribe.net, for example, people join online interest groups and post classified ads within them. In December, the job-search giant Monster.com added a networking component, where members can ask to be connected to others they find through detailed searches. Friendster.com is popular among the under-35 crowd and is known as more of a social and dating network, but job recruiters have their eye on it as a potential resource.
Some sites require that you be invited by other members. Google's multipurpose networking site, Orkut, is so new that many people eager to join are frustrated because they are waiting for someone they know to link them in.
Sites that combine social, romantic, and professional networking appeal to many people, but they can create confusing situations. If you post your picture and your hobbies but someone e-mails you to talk about a professional issue, how do you know the true motive? Something similar could just as easily happen at face-to-face networking events, online networkers say.
The strictly business sites that work by invitation, such as LinkedIn, appeal to people who would probably be flooded by requests in a more open forum. LinkedIn's members include many venture capitalists, as well as top executives from companies such as Netscape and Sony Worldwide, says spokesman Konstantin Guericke.
The exclusivity of an invitation-only site has its pros and cons, users say. When Ms. Quihuis joined LinkedIn, she says, "it tended to be very male dominated ... kind of the old boys' network.... So I decided to be the anarchist in the network and just bring some other people in."
Quihuis, a Mexican-American, invited hundreds of women and minorities. But she's waiting to see how much they embrace it. Some either don't see the importance of networking or are still uncomfortable sharing a lot of information about themselves. "My suspicion is that, like most things, the technology will help accelerate and deepen the advantage [of experienced networkers]."
The gender gap is clear to Diane Danielson, founder of Downtown Women's Clubs with chapters in and around Boston and New York. She's researched various online networking models, but she says most members aren't interested. "Networking is about relationship building, and that's difficult to emulate virtually for most women," she says.
She can envision that situation improving as young women who grow up reading blogs every day enter the professional realm. But women already have a strong presence on some networking sites. Work-at-home moms, for instance, organize virtual product parties to sell everything from Tupperware to lingerie on networking sites like Ryze.com, Allen says.
College seniors about to apply for their first job have probably heard the mantra: network, network, network. That's how half or more jobs are landed, according to some estimates. But some young people don't get the reciprocal concept of networking, says Mr. Rothberg of CollegeRecruiter.com. When his site tried networking a few years ago, it failed because too many college students asked for help finding jobs, but didn't offer connections or advice to others.
New college grads are taking advantage of Monster Networking, says senior vice president Michael Schutzler. "A kid in Florida sent us a thank-you letter saying, 'Hey, this has been great, I've tapped into three people in this industry [website design], and they're mentoring me.' "
Even among people who don't consider themselves savvy Internet users, the buzz about networking sites could spread fast. Laura Deschaines, a 24-year-old who didn't have Internet access until last fall, has already joined some Yahoo groups and Friendster. She uses them socially, but she's pondering professional networking. "When I do start to look seriously for a new job," she writes in an e-mail, "I plan first to find out the best ways to use networking sites."
• For information about a wide range of networking sites, see Scott Allen's www.onlinebusinessnetworks.com/ online-social-networks-guide. Mr. Allen has affiliations with some sites because he teaches online networking skills.