While the high-tech world has a tendency to favor first-movers, moving second can have its benefits. LinkedIn is arguably way ehind Facebook in terms of forming groups, and just recently LinkedIn has made it simple to use applications. I've been waiting for this capability since I saw LinkedIn and Google showing off the calendar application on the release of OpenSocial.
Although Facebook is increasingly being used for serious networking and setting up get-togethers, including business networking meetings, Facebook isn't intrinsically designed to be serious. Facebook is fun and colorful, while LinkedIn is black-and-white, I've heard it said, but I don't wear my party shirts to business meetings.
For business networking, LinkedIn is far and away the most popular social network, and by adding groups and applications, they are poised to really take a leap. A minority of users are actively using the professional lists, the bias is clear. If you go to LinkedIn to set up a group, you are doing so for professional networking purposes, and dramatically enhancing your reach to other professionals in the area.
I've been warmly welcomed to every group I attempted to join, and offered connectivity to other group members. This is networking at its best.
You may have some doubts as to the quality of the links acquired through this type of networking, and I agree. However, fundamentally, it's no different than having a coffee at a professional conference with someone. You still don't know the person; you might not necessarily recommend them or refer them to a colleague; but you would be inclined to at least read the e-mail they send to you. The major significant difference in the LinkedIn connection is: you can actually remember you have it and search for it when you need it. Whether you store your paper business cards in a binder of a box, no matter what sorting system you use, there's no denying that it's going to be easier to find a LinkedIn connection than a business card.
The only major feature lacking is "notes", such as you would scribble on the back of a business card. I would like to see that feature on a social network: the ability to write your own personal comments on how you met the person and the ability to apply your own tags for later search of the person's profile.
Apps are just in the nascent stage, and don't yet include the kinds of tools that will connect online to real life encounters. To do that, applications need to correspond real-world activities with online and professional profiles. For example, if you are attending an event, and you want to meet a certain type of professional, you should be able to make the proper search. If you are on business in a foreign city or a particular hotel, you could use some kind of application to put together a minyan, or find someone to go jogging with who is also a professional in your field.
Most business travelers find themselves alone much of the time they travel, so this could be incredibly effective. Imagine being able to find the right person to sit next to on a flight instead of ending up next to the crying baby. Not that I have anything against crying babies; I've had a couple of my own. Still, when on business, the benefit of sitting in a plane next to someone visiting the same conference or belonging to the same industry is clear.
At this stage, the applications tend to restrict your life to the virtual. I'm looking forward to LinkedIn's providing apps that cross the gaps and create meaningful relationships. Recent developments lead me to believe that time is drawing near.