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LinkedIn founder says social networking may be vital for career

Has a mastery of social networking become a prerequisite for a successful working life?

If “friending” and tweeting are now essential skills for the professional classes, where does that leave the chronically network-challenged? And how do you get into the networks where the power players hang out?

Questions such as these spring inevitably — and uncomfortably — to mind as you read “The Start-up of You: Adapt to the Future, Invest in Yourself and Transform Your Career,” a new book cowritten by Reid Hoffman, founder and chairman of Mountain View, Calif.-based LinkedIn Corp.

The premise is simple: In a world in which job security has become a thing of the past, who you know is more important than it ever has been. And with a host of new online tools to help you establish your identity and connect with people who might further your interests, to remain un-networked is to risk being excluded from the modern working world.

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If this sounds self-serving, Hoffman at least does not cram LinkedIn down the throats of his readers. His case is a bigger one. Individual careers, he says, are becoming like the start-ups he has led, and funded, in Silicon Valley. They take plenty of hustle and constant networking to build, and they often change course several times before any sort of pattern emerges.

For an idea of the sort of career this implies, look no further than Ben Casnocha, Hoffman’s coauthor. On LinkedIn, he describes himself as “a San Francisco-based entrepreneur, author, blogger, traveler, and most of all, learner.” He doesn’t divulge his age, but in 2001, when he was 14, he was already a two-time entrepreneur.

This book, published by Crown Business, suggests that in the future we will all live in a similar emergent state, a sort of permanent becoming. And it will take online social networks to lubricate the relationships that make such lives possible.

This will sound alien and scary to nine-to-fivers. That, though, is even more reason to dip a toe in the water. “Many people are repulsed by networking,” the authors write, before going on to produce a basic guide on how to go about it (and not just online). There isn’t much that will be news here for the most socially attuned, but it’s a brisk introduction for the less adept.

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Hoffman draws on the experience of his Silicon Valley circle as a model. There was the time, for instance, that he introduced Peter Thiel, an old business school friend, to a young Harvard dropout named Mark Zuckerberg. (The $500,000 investment Thiel made after that introduction will be worth billions when Facebook Inc. goes public.)

Or when Hoffman cut Zynga founder Mark Pincus in on an investment in Facebook — a favor that Pincus repaid by giving Hoffman the chance to invest in the social gaming company and join its board.

The consolation for the rest of us? “An alliance can be enriching even if millions of dollars are not at stake,” Hoffman says. Perhaps — but the millions certainly help.

All of which prompts a question: In a winner-take-all world, do the networks of the rich and powerful become self-reinforcing? For all Hoffman’s claims that the lives of successful Silicon Valley zillionaires are a useful model, one cannot escape the sense that he moves in a rarefied world in which a you-scratch-my-back chumminess excludes the less fortunate.

Personal networks, of course, have always been the lifeblood of business. In the age of LinkedIn and Facebook, they are at least becoming less tied to accidents of place and social background. And ultimately it is the optimism of Silicon Valley that infuses this book: There is still hope for those striving to break into the charmed circle.

Richard Waters is the U.S. West Coast managing editor of the Financial Times of London, in which this review first appeared.


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