I don't know Kenneth Norton, but he's a mere two degrees of separation from me. Norton is director of product management at Yahoo, and he has coined one of the best new words of 2004. The word is "snam."
Everyone knows what spam is—unwanted email. Snam is a mutant variant. It's unwanted email generated by such "social networking" Web sites as Friendster, LinkedIn, and Tribe. Social networking . . . snam? Get it?
Social networking is based on the six- degrees-of-separation concept. In business, we imagine that if we could tap into the personal networks of our colleagues and associates, we'd be able to hopscotch across all those degrees of separation and make contact with Carly Fiorina, Jeff Immelt, or Donald Trump. Once you have access to the inboxes of the well-placed and powerful, you can ask them for jobs, meetings, or partnerships.
When I wanted to ask Norton whether he had, in fact, coined "snam," I sent a request through LinkedIn. The request first went to a mutual friend, who had to decide whether the request was worth forwarding. Thankfully, my friend passed along the email to Norton, who said that to the best of his knowledge, no one had used the word snam before him.
I did the same thing when I wanted to get in touch with Konstantin Guericke, VP of marketing and cofounder of LinkedIn. That request went through a friend of mine, then a colleague of Guericke's at the Mountain View, California, startup. Guericke told me that 50% of the requests the company handles involve hiring. Thirty percent involve business partnerships. The remaining 20% entail people looking for experts—Guericke calls them "mini-consultants"—and others trying to reconnect with former colleagues and friends.
The first step in joining one of the social-networking services is inviting everyone you know to be part of it. That generates an initial wave of snam as everyone in your address book receives an impersonal message asking them to create an account and fess up to being associated with you. The second wave of snam consists of the resulting requests: Would you pass this message along to someone you know? Is your department hiring? Are you unhappy with your current ad agency and willing to meet with us?
For some people—I'm not one—being a central node in an online social network can impart a feeling of importance and connectedness. For the majority, though, it'll be a hassle. The people you might want to contact aren't all members of the same service; they're probably spread across different sites such as LinkedIn, Ryze, and a new site launched by Monster. And who wants to spend time relaying appeals from people you don't know or answering questions for friends-of-friends?
What will prove more valuable is social networking within organizations. Companies such as Contact Network, Spoke Software, Interface Software, and ZeroDegrees collect individual contact data from a company's employees, then merge it with those workers' past employment histories. You can type in a company name, like General Motors, and find out that a colleague three floors up once worked there. With the contact owner's permission, you can get in touch with someone at your target company.
These internal corporate systems also generate snam—messages requesting access to your contact, or a personal introduction. But compared with the vague Good Samaritanism of all-access social-networking sites, this variety of snam can help your company in a concrete way—and maybe even you.
A version of this article appeared in the Table of Contents - April 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.