Social networking is a phrase almost certainly dreamed up by some smart aleck who thought they'd make a fast buck from telling the uninspired the perfectly obvious: that marrying a social element to a business could make you more popular and successful.
Cynics might suggest that the term isn't that far removed from social engineering. And it's true that becoming a successful social networker involves more skill and calculation than pure sociability.
Some of the new contacts seeking us out on Twitter are of the ‘social networks are the future' variety, hoping to expand their influence in the industry. A second set have no apparent motive for wanting to ‘follow' us, and appear to be building up a base of contacts that they can then sell on to the highest bidder.
LinkedIn - probably the best-known of the business-centric networking platforms - seems not to suffer from the same issue, not least because links are forged between you and people you already know, and with their trusted acquaintances. Random invitations are far less likely - and less likely to be fake or malicious.
The site serves to connect colleagues and ex-colleagues with potential employers and employees. It offers a trusted pool of contractors, freelancers and experts you can call on. By sanctioning someone, you put your own reputation on the line.
Another element that can't be ignored is the economic one: if your current employer has to shut up shop or reduce its workforce, forging new contacts and new avenues for potential employment makes sense. It's a sad fact that LinkedIn has become more active of late, largely because people believe their jobs are unsafe.
Social networking isn't without its pitfalls. If you're not sure of someone's motives - or that they are who they say they are, or know who they say they do - ignore them. But if you can make web-based networking work for you, you stand to gain on several levels. Here, we'll show you how.
1. Go to linkedin.com to register. You have to fill in some basic details about yourself and your current or planned business sector. There are more than 36 million LinkedIn users worldwide and the site lists some 170 industries - align yourself to both a broad and a more focused business area.
2. Now you need to expand your profile, outlining qualifications, skills and experience. What you say here will act as a form of CV. Consider carefully what contact information you're happy to share. Similarly, don't forget to list your previous positions so past colleagues and associates can find you.
3. Next, you need to start adding some contacts. Start with the people you know - colleagues or ex-colleagues you're still in touch with, plus current business associates with whom you have an established relationship. These contacts are likely to be the most useful if you find yourself looking for work.
4. Consider the usefulness of personal contacts, such as old university friends, based on the relevance of the business they work in. LinkedIn has been described as a democratic version of an old boys' network - so work it. Use Contacts, Import Contacts to associate existing colleagues and associates with your account.
5. On the right of the Import Contacts pane are two options: Other Address Book and Enter Contacts Manually. The Other Address Book option lets you import details from a .csv, .txt or .rtf file that contains an exportable contacts list. If you can't find the file you need, go to Start, Search and enter a file type search for *.*.csv.
6. If there's someone you know and you'd like to get in touch with, but you don't have a direct connection, a friend or associate may be able to help. The Network Statistics tab under Contacts is useful, as it outlines your non-direct contacts and allows you to search for specific people.
7. Browse contacts' details and learn more about them by clicking their name and choosing View Profile. You'll see a blue circle next to contacts in your network indicating the ‘degrees of separation' between you. The more connections a contact has, the more valuable they're likely to be.
8. Don't worry if you don't get around to adding a contact immediately. Requests don't expire. You should try to be a good networker, however, and don't leave it too long before updating your list of contacts by accepting invitations or sending requests to others.
9. LinkedIn is about recommendations, as well as pure connections. The user's profile in this screenshot outlines not only his current and past employment history, but also indicates that four people have recommended him - gold dust, given that former PCA editor Andrew is a freelancer these days.
10. To become recommended, click your profile and choose Edit My Profile. Now click Get Recommended. Enter the name of a contact in your network and ask them to say good things about you. The rules of quid pro quo apply, so recommend people if you expect others to recommend you.
11. In common with social networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn invites you to tell casual browsers what you're up to in the status bar. The default setting is ‘This Contact is working on...' Click to edit this and a drop-down menu appears offering you alternative status messages.
12. Another way to get noticed is to become a member of a group and contribute to discussions. You can create a group or ask to join one; alternatively, you may be contacted by someone who'd like you to join. Contributing to a group can help raise your profile and give you kudos as an expert in your field of business.
13. If you haven't received an invitation to join a group, you'll need to ask to become a member. Click the Join Group button and follow the onscreen instructions. Once your membership request has been accepted, you can follow group discussions and make pithy comments.
14. Your LinkedIn InMail acts as a sort of clearing house for most of your network activity on the site. Here, you'll receive requests for endorsements, recommendations and introductions to other people in your network. This provides a useful summary of your account activity.