Have you been getting e-mails from friends and co-workers who want to add you as a "connection" in their "network"?
If you work in a white-collar field, the answer is probably yes.
The popularity of business networking Web sites is booming as people use technology to foster relationships and connect with people in their fields.
MySpace and Facebook are popular sites for social and business networking, but the sites that focus solely on business -- such as Linkedin, ZoomInfo, Plaxo, StumbleUpon and VisualCV -- are being used in record numbers.
The largest site, Linkedin (www.linkedin.com), boasts 500,000 users in the Chicago area alone and 20 million members worldwide.
Sometimes referred to as "MySpace for grown-ups" or "Facebook for professionals," Linkedin provides services for everyone from the solo job seeker to Fortune 500 corporate recruiters. It allows users to post their resumes, links, letters of recommendation and more. The site recently added a feature that lets users research company profiles.
One of Linkedin's most popular features, however, is that it allows you to add professional "connections" to your profile, much like you add friends on MySpace. You can use those connections to informally introduce yourself to others.
Tracy Price-Lynch, owner of MISIX Marketing in Lake Villa, says she uses Linkedin to do research and "mine for sales opportunities."
Not long ago, she saw a post from a Texas woman who wanted to buy computers in bulk. She shared that tidbit with a friend in Grayslake and, long story short, the Texan ended up buying 3,000 computers from her friend.
"And she might increase the order to 10,000," Price-Lynch said.
David Rudduck, the press secretary for Gov. Rod Blagojevich, uses the networking site as part of his job.
"I've used it to expand my network of people in the media," he said. "I could say, 'hey, I'm a friend of so-and-sos at CNN.' It's interesting how you can find people out there who you might not have had access to otherwise."
Experts say having a professional online presence is now an essential tool in the business world, and your online profile could ultimately determine whether you get a specific job, win over a client or find the right person to hire.
According to a November 2007 survey by Vault, 44 percent of employers now use online networking sites to examine the profiles of job candidates. Thirty-nine percent report looking at profiles of its current employees.
"We call it digging up the digital dirt," says Barbara Poole, founder of the new site, www.employaid.com. "It's all about creating a brand and market for yourself. (Online business networks) are one of the most major recruiting sources on the Internet now."
No field is more associated with connections than politics, which might explain why Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain all have Linkedin profiles.
Even those outside politics have reaped the benefits of online networking.
Linkedin spokeswoman Krista Canfield told a story of a small business owner who had an idea to help The Weather Channel. Using Linkedin, that man connected with someone at TWC and their companies ended up doing business together.
"It's kind of like going into a singles bar. You want to meet people, but you don't know how," Canfield said. "You just have to jump in there. We've heard so many success stories."
Geri Kleeman of Chicago, a headhunter and president of the Kleeman Group, has found new clients by working her more than 8,000 Linkedin connections.
"This is one of many (Web sites) that I use," she said. "It's great for research, and it's great for connecting with people. Sometimes you type in the name of someone you knew a long time ago and find them in there. You lose their phone number and their e-mail but here you can find them."
There is a downside to these Web sites, though.
"It can be a time-sucker, without a doubt," Kleeman said, laughing.
Price-Lynch agrees, and says she has to set time limits for herself.
"It draws you in, and you can spend a lot of time on there, so you have to set boundaries. Or else you could spend all day reading things and posting things," she said.