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If there were a competition for “Internet Buzzword of the Year,” last year’s winner would have been “social networking,” as a cohort of companies such as Ryze, Tribe, LinkedIn, Friendster, Spoke, and Visible Path, rolled out new or improved services that let Web users create online mirrors of their circle of real-life acquaintances. The idea was mainly to let users build online profiles that advertised their interests and to help them connect with friends and friends-of-friends around one of those interests – whether it be finding a job, making a sale, or repairing an old motorcycle.

But with the exception of Friendster and Myspace, the initial response to these services among average Internet users was sluggish. Many users signed up for one or more services, created online profiles, formed connections with a few acquaintances, and drifted away, uncertain about how to use the networks.

But today, not only have all of these companies survived; they’re experiencing record growth, introducing new technology and new money-making features, and being joined by sophisticated new competitors such as iMeem. Moreover, they’re joining the parade of sites offering “rich media” – the big buzzword of 2005 – by encouraging users to share their own content online, including photos, videos, music, and other digital files.

Social networking, in other words, is finally becoming a real business with a convincing product.

“A year ago a lot of our users were pretty unclear about what they could do,” says Konstantin Guericke, co-founder and vice president of marketing at LinkedIn, a social network focusing on business connections. “They knew they were getting invitations to join the network, and they knew how to accept invitations, and sometimes they sent their own invitations – but they weren’t sure what else to do with that.”

A year later, LinkedIn’s membership has grown from 1 million to 4.2 million; users are conducting 5 million searches a month for potential contacts within their own networks, and the company has launched several revenue-producing features, such as paid subscription options that allow members to search profiles outside their immediate circle of friends and friends-of-friends.

Rather than simply passing requests for introductions back and forth through their networks – which was about all they could do a year ago – LinkedIn members are using their networks for practical purposes, like finding job candidates, locating business and legal services, and coordinating group activities.

What makes all this possible, says Guericke, is the user-generated content LinkedIn holds in its members’ profiles, such as resumes and testimonials. “First, we are a search engine. But second, we are a publishing platform – about yourself and what other people say about you,” Guericke says. “It just creates a more powerful business.”

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