by Bob Walters | September 01, 2004

We have all learned that the Internet is home to experts on and fans of every subject we’ll ever want to explore. Now, finding the right contact, especially in the business world, is becoming easier with the growing popularity of P2P (for person-to-person or peer-to-peer) technologies.
    If you like getting involved with a range of people with similar interests, are looking to expand your consulting services, want to build your own world of contacts or are even looking for a new position, these online networking clubs might be for you.
    Yahoo! has been one of the most successful sites at providing people of similar interests with the tools to build interrelated groups. I have
belonged to several Yahoo! groups, from product-specific to recreation-oriented, and my M&C editor is a member of one that links up her neighbors.
    This type of social interaction is now beginning to take root in the business world. Sites such as LinkedIn (, Ryze (, Spoke ( and ZeroDegrees (, the latter of which recently has been bought by InterActive Corp., are focusing on building business-oriented networking environments.
    Many of these sites started out small and grew exponentially. Most are not respectably funded, although Spoke is underwritten by several venture-capital companies and is probably the most business-oriented of the group. Interestingly, the only FAQ link not working when I visited was labeled “How much does it cost?” However, new users were invited to try the service for free.
    The rest of these sites also were free when I visited. There might be limited use offered without joining; some have indicated they are looking into charging membership fees in the future.

The way these systems work varies, but the end result is the same: You join and then add in the names of your friends, co-workers or business contacts to build your network. Some of the sites allow you to import your address book directly from your e-mail system.
    In the process of joining, you are asked to fill out a detailed profile about yourself, your interests, areas of expertise, hobbies, etc. You can then send friends and colleagues a message notifying them that you have become a member and inviting them to do the same.
    Once you click with someone new and join each others’ networks, you are linked to their entire group; the connections quickly multiply from there.
    At Spoke, you can join as an individual to widen your social and business contacts, or you can create a Spoke network for your organization. Think of how often you have tried to tackle a problem only to have someone say, “If I had known, I could have helped.” With Spoke, you can involve everyone in the company, your customers, even your suppliers and prospects. You just post a request, and Spoke does the work.
    Many of us use listservs to get some of the same results, but because those responses generally are made to the entire audience, they have to be tempered and controlled. Through Spoke, people respond to you only, and they can be more direct than they might be on a listserv.
    Another advantage of networking services over listservs: You control who gets to see your e-mail address.
    On a listserv, everyone can see your address, and you can easily become part of a spam-marketing blast. In the new networks, your identity is not revealed unless you want it to be. You can’t see the identities of the responders, either, unless you set up some form of direct communication.