When radiation oncologist Michael Tomblyn recently saw
a 21-year-old patient whose eye was protruding from its socket, he
turned to his fellow physicians for help. Dozens of doctors offered
suggestions, including fungal infection, HIV-associated lymphoma or a
cocaine-associated sinus problem, eventually steering him toward the
correct answer: rhabdomyosarcoma, a fast-growing cancer most often
observed in young children.
The diagnosis didn't take place in a doctor's lounge. It happened on Sermo.com,
a social-networking site for licensed physicians, which Dr. Tomblyn and
25,000 doctors like him visit regularly to consult with colleagues
specializing in areas from dermatology to psychiatry.
"It is a way for us to commiserate and know we are
still talking to others like us," says 36-year-old Dr. Tomblyn, who
works for the University of Minnesota Medical Center.
Social networking, popularized by teens sharing
information with their friends online on Web sites such as Facebook
Inc., is now blooming in the business world, thanks to new social
networks that enable professionals and executives in industries such as
advertising and finance to rub virtual elbows with colleagues.
Millions of professionals already turn to broad-based
networking sites like LinkedIn to swap job details and contact
information, often for recruiting purposes. Business executives also
have turned to online forums, email lists and message boards to sound
off on information related to their industries.
Now, online services are trying to promote a more
personal type of business networking. Unlike relatively simple message
boards that are open to all, these new sites -- including Sermo.com for
doctors and INmobile.org
for the wireless industry -- have features such as profile pages
showing professional credentials; personal blogs that function like a
kind of online diary; links to "friends" online; electronic invitations
to real or online events; and instant-messaging.
Social networking is just one of many consumer
technologies, including blogs, wikis and virtual worlds, to cross over
into the corporate world. It is happening as social networking is
moving more into the mainstream. Leading consumer social-networking
sites attracted more than 110 million unique monthly U.S. visitors in
July, up more than 40% from the previous July, according to comScore Inc.
For a variety of reasons, social networking has been
slower to take off in the business world. Employees are wary of
disclosing too much to potential competitors, and loose-lipped
executives can easily embarrass themselves and their companies online.
Policing these services' memberships to weed out impostors can be
difficult, and the sites are still in the early stages of turning their
networks into sustainable businesses. Also, business users typically
have less time to devote to socializing online and are willing to do so
only if they believe they are getting a unique benefit from the site.
"Professionals are fairly protective about their
social networks which they spend their whole lives to build," says
Mikolaj Jan Piskorski, assistant professor of business administration
at Harvard Business School. He adds that the appeal of social
networking is limited largely to industries where workers are fairly
isolated from their colleagues on a day-to-day basis, like medicine,
construction and sales.
Many of the new services are free to members. Revenue
comes from advertising or charging outside businesses access to data
and member discussions. For example, Sermo Inc. of Cambridge, Mass.,
generally charges $100,000 to $150,000 a year to nonmedical businesses
like hedge funds, which use it to research such things as how doctors
feel about new drugs. They can monitor online discussions, with the
doctors' names omitted, or see a tally of topics being discussed on the
site -- like a new medical device or a controversial cancer treatment
-- to determine what's rising or falling in popularity.
The site, founded by Daniel Palestrant while he was a
surgical resident in Boston and launched last year, discloses its
business model to users when they register. Members say they don't mind
that their conversations are accessible to others, particularly since
their identities are concealed. In this, Sermo is different from many
other sites. Doctors are generally more interested in getting treatment
advice and access to other doctors' experiences than in networking for
new business partners. As a result, the site doesn't require users to
use their real names, although Sermo itself verifies and holds the
identities of everyone who registers.
INmobile.org -- a social network for the wireless
industry launched last year by Adam Zawel, former director of the
Yankee Group's Wireless US Research Program and the executive search
firm IdealWave Solutions, based in Harvard, Mass. -- has a different
business model. Its basic services are free to its members, about 730
high-level executives at cellphone makers, wireless operators and media
companies. But members can choose to pay $2,000 a year to list
promotions and ads in a special "marketplace" section.
Some of the new sites simply charge a membership fee. This fall, for example, Reuters Group
PLC is planning to launch a new social-networking service, tentatively
named "Reuters Space," for fund managers, traders and analysts. For a
fee, which hasn't yet been set, they will be able to log on to create
profiles with industry-relevant information like their "asset class"
and "instruments," check financial news feeds and ruminate about the
industry on personal blogs. However, the Reuters service will only
allow employees to join if their companies are Reuters customers. It
also plans to allow companies to block certain features like blogging
and to archive employees' online activities for compliance purposes.
Online networking services are trying to broaden their
appeal with new ways of making sure their members are who they say they
are. For example, Sermo authenticates each of its members by checking
their credentials against several of the 10,000 databases they have
access to. The service also requires users to answer three verifiable
personal questions, ranging from their phone number to where they got
their medical degrees before they can sign up.
INmobile.org relies on member referrals and email
confirmations, but says it is looking into stricter methods, like
calling up the person or their colleagues, since emails can be easily
faked. The service says it turns away more than half who apply,
admitting only director-level employees and above from large companies,
top-level executives from smaller companies and vice-president level
and above from midsize businesses.
Even after these measures, it can be difficult getting
business people to converse freely with each other online. Alexander
Pigeon, vice president of international for MLB Advanced Media LP, the
interactive media and Internet arm of Major League Baseball, is guarded
about what he shares on INmobile.org, which he recently joined to stay
on top of big trends in wireless. "I certainly wouldn't post something
about my company that wasn't publicly released," says Mr. Pigeon, who
instead sticks with "pontifications" on broad trends like the future of
But taking a risk on an advertising social-network
paid off for Angela Glenn of Long Beach, Calif. The 40-year-old graphic
designer first joined a free social network created by the blog AdRants
as a "lurker," reading but not contributing to the site. Before long,
she gained the confidence to debate topics like Web-site design, and
she and one sparring partner grew so fond of each other's styles that
they eventually started an ad agency together, the GASP Company LLC.
"You get to hear potential partners out and see how they think about
things," she says. "It's the closest thing you get to a personal
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