Are you using LinkedIn, Plaxo, Orkut, or one of the umpteen contact management or Six-Degrees of Kevin Bacon-like business card exchanges? If there's someone you need an introduction to through someone else you know, chances are pretty good that you know the right people to make that introduction happen. Provided everyone keys their information into solutions like LinkedIn, the online referral network can find what essentially amounts to the shortest distance between two points: the least number of people (and who they are) that you need in order to get that introduction made.
Plaxo is different from LinkedIn (but a lot like Accucard) in that it's primary purpose is to let your contacts use Plaxo's online service to manage their own contact information for you. Then, much the same way FusionOne works, the information is not only available to you through your Outlook address book, but also to your mobile devices. Currently however, despite its users requesting the feature, Plaxo doesn't do the sort of referral networking that LinkedIn does. According to a company spokesperson, it doesn't plan to either.
One place where many (but not all) of these services overlap is in the way that contact information is automatically propagated. If you and I keep each others' contact information in our address books and both of us are active members of Plaxo or LinkedIn who keep our contact information current, then there's nothing either of us needs to do to keep each other's contact information current. If I change my phone number, that information propagates to you automatically.
There's a labor-related incentive to joining these networks. If I join Plaxo, then I just have to maintain my contact information in one place and all the other Plaxo members can link to it. If I don't, then for every Plaxo user that wants me in their electronic Rolodex, those users have to send me an e-mail that connects me to an online form (on Plaxo's site) where I can must enter all of my personal contact information over and over and over again (auto-complete in my browser helps, but here's a thought for you browser programmers: how about a "autoFORMcomplete" feature for every time it sees exactly the same form?)
But there's some dark sides to this electronic business card ecosystem.
First, it's very much like the instant messaging ecosystem where I'm not exactly crazy about having to run four separate instant messaging clients -- Yahoo's, AOL's, Microsoft's, and now Skype (as a part of its VoIP solution) -- on my PC at the same time. I have to do this because not everybody I want to send an instant message to is on one service. I've got plenty on each one (and the last thing I wanted to see was yet another from Google).
My PC is screwed up enough and somehow gets even more screwed up every time I add more software to it. So, my preference is to keep the software packages I must install (and Web sites I have to visit) down to a minimum. But with some of my contacts using LinkedIn and others using Plaxo and still others on Accucard (only one is on Orkut), I'm worried about heading down the same rathole as more of my contacts begin to use these and other services like them. I want the services. But not the complexity of having to connect to twenty of them or install their software (both LinkedIn and Plaxo require downloads for seamless integration with Outlook). My preference is to use just one.
Second, because these services use e-mail as the invitation mechanism (when I indicate that I want you to be a part of my network, the service sends you an e-mail invitation), I wish the e-mails would contain much more information about the person who issued the invitation than they do. Today, I can tell who it is. But I have to work a little bit harder to find out the rest and even then, I can't find out everything. For example, I'm really bad with names. Often, when I get an invitation, I have no idea whether I've already met the person or not, or if they're just cold calling me (sort of a form of spam, if you ask me).
If I had one request, it would be to include a bullet list in the invitation that tells me why I'd want to accept it. Who are you? Who do you work for? How do I know you (if I know you)? Why do you want link our business cards? Absent of this information (or, if I have to work to get to it), I'm much less incented to accept the invitation. The last thing I want is a Rolodex that's populated with a bunch of people that I don't know.
Today, if I had to go with just one, I think I'd have to apply what I call the "eBay rule." The eBay rule works like this: if you have something to sell online and you want to get the most money for it, where's the best place to go? Answer: The place with the most buyers. That's eBay. Likewise, if I'm looking to buy a part for my bicycle -- a pair of Shimano Dura-Ace pedal for example -- then I also know that the best place to go is where all the sellers are: eBay (sidebar: to all you start-up specialists and VCs, I know how to give other e-commerce exchanges a fighting chance against the eBays and Amazons of the world, but it would take millions of dollars).
The eBay rule is about the easiest way to connect with as many people possible. You go where the biggest clumpings are and, in eBay's case, nothing I know of comes close for most product types (used books, for example, will probably do much better on Amazon). Likewise, with business card exchanges, the various services, maybe it's the coterie I keep, but my sense is that LinkedIn is winning. By far, the majority of the connection invitations I get come from users of LinkedIn. It's probably double or triple the number of invitations I get from Plaxo which runs a distant second place. As a result, I recently became more engaged with LinkedIn. Not only did I start sending invitations out for the first time (until then, I was just responding to them), I actually used the service to find the shortest path between me and someone I needed an introduction to. The person I wanted to meet was three degrees away from me and, as such, only required the involvement of two intermediaries who knew each other. One of those intermediaries is someone I know well. The other, as it turned out, is the executive assistant to the person I wanted to meet. I had no idea it was such a small world. Now, thanks to LinkedIn, I do.