The Monster Dilemma

October 18, 2007

Posting jobs on the Web is easy. It’s sifting through hundreds of resumés that’s a pain.

For business owners plagued by a dearth of candidates for key job openings, the Web was supposed to provide an ideal solution. Job-search sites like can put postings in front of millions of applicants instantly. And newer business-oriented social networking sites like LinkedIn provide similarly fertile recruiting territory, supplying access to the contacts of thousands of people. On the other hand, anyone who’s actually tried to hire someone through the Web knows the truth: You post an ad and are immediately flooded with hundreds of resumés, many from people whose backgrounds are wildly inappropriate. So much for the Web making things easier. It’s enough to make you long for the days of print newspaper ads and snail mail.

But just as technology created the problem, newer technology aims to solve it. A new generation of hiring tools promises to screen out inappropriate applicants, allow the suitable ones to put their best foot forward, and even hunt down good candidates who haven’t applied. As these new services get better at these tasks, they may well change the balance of power in the job-recruiting industry and could even redefine the way we think about jobs.

A shot at diverting a river of weak applicants is the chief advantage offered to employers by Protuo, a Woodstock, Georgia-based start-up that launched its service in January. Protuo isn’t only a job-listing site; it also forwards its clients’ listings to some 270 established job-listing sites, including Monster. But applicants can’t respond to a Protuo posting unless they spend seven minutes or so filling out a survey that asks about experience, skills, workstyles, and job preferences. Employers can customize the survey by choosing from a wide field of prepared questions or by adding their own, and they specify which responses get a candidate’s resumé past the screen. Has the candidate managed a technical project? Is he or she willing to move? The approach is modeled, to some extent, on the sort of compatibility gauging one encounters on a matchmaking site like eHarmony, notes Jennifer Gerlach, Protuo’s co-founder and vice president of marketing. Gerlach went through the dating process on eHarmony just to research the technique. “I learned a lot,” she says. “And I met some very, very nice people.”

With online job postings sometimes pulling in more than a thousand applicants, the ability to winnow the flood could mean the difference between being able to retain control of the hiring process and having to bring in a professional recruiter–at a typical cost of $30,000 for a midlevel hire. The time and expense of dealing with a huge influx of resumés is all the more frustrating because much of the flow comes from online applicants who indiscriminately bombard hirers with resumés. You can try a keyword search on the resumés to narrow things down, but applicants have learned to load their resumés with them, often by pasting in phrases from the job posting. Even LinkedIn has suffered from inflation, as many users aggressively build networks of people they don’t really know in order to make themselves appear better connected. “There’s no value in a lot of these contacts,” says LinkedIn user Chris Knudsen, who heads business development for podcasting company Podango in Salt Lake City. “It can just be someone whose card you got at a trade show.” (A LinkedIn spokesperson commented via e-mail: “Anyone can join the LinkedIn network; however, the quality of your own personal LinkedIn network is the responsibility of each individual.”) But a well-designed survey, contends Gerlach, allows users to skim the cream.

Fred Donovan, who runs Donovan Networks, a seven-employee computer network security firm, has been flooded with applicants responding to previous postings to and other online job boards. He is currently conducting a Protuo search and likes what he’s seen so far. “I can specify that I want to see only resumés from people who say they have 10 years’ experience in negotiating sales and are familiar with the software development process,” he says. “I’m seeing a small, better-qualified subset of the applicants.” There must be something to the idea. Other hiring sites, including Market10, Jobster, and Taleo, are introducing their own approaches to automated candidate screening. And Monster is doing the same, making available–for a fee that adds about 20 percent to the cost of posting a job–the ability to direct applicants to a questionnaire designed to rank the suitability of candidates.

Sure, candidates can try to game these surveys by being less than truthful. But Gerlach insists that surveys can be designed to stymie such people by asking questions that don’t have an obviously right answer–such as whether the person prefers to work independently or in groups–and by warning candidates that they can be rated as overqualified. Protuo, which costs hirers $44 to $295 a month depending on the number of jobs they’re posting and is currently free to job seekers, also offers applicants a chance to do more than post a resumé. The firm invites users to create online portfolios that can include whatever documents, photos, videos, or other material that best represents that person’s career to date. (Monster is currently testing a similar capability.)

ZoomInfo, in Waltham, Massachusetts, takes a different approach. It assembles profiles of potential job candidates from all available online data, whether or not they’re looking for jobs. Starting with the same techniques that Google uses to gather Web data associated with a person’s name, ZoomInfo adds the significant additional step of crunching the results to pull out the most relevant information, weed out data referring to other people of the same name, and assemble a professional profile. ZoomInfo has an R&D team of 35 working on the technology. So far, the company has assembled some 34 million profiles, and as far as I can tell, most of them are fairly informative and accurate. (Check out your own name to put it to the test.)

But somebody has to pay for all those scientists, and that somebody is you. The company charges $5,000 a user per year for the ability to dig up personnel profiles by company or industry. It sounds like a lot, but ZoomInfo’s COO, Bryan Burdick, notes that if you get the right candidate for a single vacancy, the price is one-sixth that of using a recruiting firm. The company also offers less expensive, more limited searching capabilities aimed at smaller companies, as well as free access to searches on individuals. Many major executive search firms, along with some 500 other corporations, already use ZoomInfo, claims Burdick. “I can find personal information, professional backgrounds–and, sometimes, damning evidence–on tens of millions of people without having to go through 1.5 million Google hits on each one,” says John Boehmer, managing partner at executive search firm Barlow Group in Norwalk, Connecticut.

Boehmer is quick to point out that as ZoomInfo-like services get better, and more companies get comfortable using them, corporate hirers won’t need professional recruiting firms like his to turn up candidates. “It’s commoditizing the front end of what we do,” he says. “Eventually, everyone will know where everyone is and how to get hold of them, so we won’t be able to charge for identifying and contacting candidates.” Search firms will still be valuable for assessing candidates, he contends, though he acknowledges that new e-hiring systems could eventually eat into that end of the business as they get smarter and have more online data to work with.

For that matter, it’s easy to imagine the not-all-that-distant day when online tools make it so easy to find people to fill a specific slot that the notion of permanent jobs becomes irrelevant for many positions. Why hire a manager for years when you can find a new one with exactly the skill set needed for the precise tasks at hand? That’s not necessarily bad for employees: Think of an economy where top employees are constantly being sought out and bid over by companies that recognize them from their Web trails as the perfect short-term solution. And talented employees would be just as smart about whom they choose to work for–using similar services to weed out companies that aren’t good matches for them. You’ll want to treat those people well. If you don’t, and they post that fact online, it could haunt you for a long, long time.

Site of the Week:

September 28, 2007

Backpack is an incredibly easy-to-use Web-based organizational service. This deceptively bare-bones-looking app provides straightforward functionality you can use to organize a wildly varying array of projects.

Straightforward, intuitive, and versatile. Easy to set up and use e-mail/SMS reminders. Premium members can share and download calendars online. Easy to share your page and make it public. Easy to update your page via e-mail and allow others to do the same. Writeboards provide hassle-free online collaboration on text documents.

Nonpaying members get only five pages to work with and no calendar. You can find similar organizational calendars for free from other services.
$5.00 – $14.00

37signals LLC

By Errol Pierre-Louis

Backpack is a Web-based service designed to organize every aspect of your life. The site combines the ease of use that I loved in Cozi with the versatility and sophistication most users demand from a full-fledged personal information manager (PIM). The genius of Backpack is that it’s so basic. It’s like having an online loose-leaf notebook to use as you please.

This app lets you create Web pages using the tools in order to add to-do lists that can incorporate files, images, and, if you pay for a premium membership, a calendar service. You can even set up Backpack to send text-message reminders to your cell phone, so you can stay on top of things even when you’re away from the computer.

To brainstorm my weekend, I hopped over to my Backpack page and set up notes with links to event listings and possible venues I wanted to visit, along with reminders to make reservations. Backpack provided me with an easy way to keep my plans in order, and I set it all up in a couple of minutes, editing and formatting the page as I saw fit. Backpack includes a ton of sample pages showing off the site’s capabilities on its example page. With these simple tools and a little knowledge about HTML, you can arrange for your Backpack pages to organize pretty much anything: book collections, social gatherings, medical records, travel plans, school itineraries, garage sales, craft projects, and so on.

It’s All About the Pages

Backpack’s log-in differs from the typical protocols on most sites. Instead of just picking a username and password, you also pick a unique URL. You use this URL to log in to your Backpack account. You’ll probably want to bookmark this URL for easy access to your Backpack page.

You start off with a blank homepage, and you can add pages by just clicking the Make a New Page button on the right-hand side of the page. A free account gets you five pages. A Basic account for $5 a month gives you 25 pages and 500MB of data storage, a Plus account for $9 a month gives you 100 pages and 1GB of storage, and the Premium account for $14 a month gives you 1,000 pages and 3GB of storage. Only paying members can upload files or images to their pages and use Backpack’s Calendar service.

The menu at the top of the page links you to everything you need to add to the page (mostly notes and to-do lists). Just click on the element you want, then title the list, note, or image gallery and begin adding content to your page. Backpack doesn’t have formatting tools, but with a basic knowledge of HTML you can easily add links and edit fonts.

You can add as many notes and lists as you want to your page. Paying members can add images and files until they hit their storage limit. You can title the notes, lists, and image galleries you create on the page. You can also add Backpack’s “dividers,” solid lines going across the page, to further organize and section off your page. To move or edit elements of your page, hover your mouse over them; a small pop-up will appear that you can use to edit, delete, or drag and drop the elements around the page, or from one of your Backpack pages to another. Lists and galleries have links within them to add items quickly to your list or pictures to your gallery. You can use tags to categorize your pages and group them together. Since free members get only five pages, this is a feature that paying members are more likely to find useful.

Backpack makes it easy to share and collaborate with others. Clicking the Share This Page link takes you to another page where you can choose to make your Backpack page public—publishing it as a read-only Web page with its own URL that you can share with friends. If you want to collaborate with other Backpack users, you can e-mail them links that give them access to edit your pages.

You can also edit your pages and collaborate with others via e-mail. Each Backpack page has its own unique e-mail address. Send an e-mail to this address to add notes, to-do lists, files, images, or post e-mails to your page. Anyone you share the e-mail address with can also contribute, and you can edit your page on the run by e-mailing from your cell phone.

Features Beyond Pages

Backpack’s Writeboards are sharable Web-based text documents, similar to Google Docs. You can save every edit, roll back to any version, and compare changes. Others can collaborate with you on your Writeboard documents by editing and leaving comments.

Click the Writeboard link to open up a new Writeboard document and give it a title. Each Writeboard has a unique URL, so you can access your Writeboard from any computer. Invite people to collaborate with you on your Writeboard using the link at the top of the sidebar to the right. The Invite People link sends e-mails to collaborators with links and passwords that’ll let them edit your Writeboard.

Whenever you save changes to your Writeboard, a new version of that document is created in the sidebar so you can easily review and compare different versions. The dots that appear next to each version indicate the degree of changes made to the document. The bigger the change, the bigger the dot. Viewing edits in Writeboard is similar to the “Final Showing Markup” option in Microsoft Word. Text deleted from a previous version will appear struck out in light gray and added text will be highlighted in green.

Backpack features a calendar similar to Cozi’s in its ease of use. Backpack’s calendar is a premium feature available only to paying members. It has the same kind of intelligent language programming that lets you set appointments by typing the dates and times into the Add Event field. For example, to set a doctor’s appointment for November 10 at 8 p.m., simply type “Nov 10 8pm Doctor Appointment.” You can set extended events—a weeklong event for instance—but you can’t type in recurring events, as you can on Cozi. You can, however, set recurring events via a drop-down menu.

Navigate through calendar pages by clicking arrows or by typing the dates you want to jump to in the Add Event field. Annoyingly, you can view the calendar only in six-week mode. You can’t expand to multi-month view or focus down to a weekly or daily view, a feature common to most PIMs.

The Add Calendar link lets you add color-coded event themes and schedules. One cool calendar feature is the ability to add iCal calendars to your personal Backpack calendar. For instance, I can easily add the Yankees’ schedule to my Backpack calendar by copying the Yankees iCal link from Apple’s iCal library and pasting it into my Add Calendar field. You can also share your own calendars with others by clicking the Share in iCal Format link of the calendar you want to share and sharing that iCal URL.

Backpack has a messaging service that lets you schedule e-mail or SMS reminders easily. You can either set up your reminders to be sent out at a specific time or use Backpack’s preset times. So if you just have a general idea of when you want to receive a reminder and not an extract time, just pick options like Tomorrow Morning (the next day at 9 a.m.), Tomorrow Afternoon (next day at 2 p.m.), A Couple of Days (in 48 hours). You can set up reminders from your calendar by checking off the Email/SMS options to get a reminder 30 minutes before the scheduled event. Reminders will be sent to whatever e-mail and cell-phone number you provided on your settings page. Charges may apply, depending on your carrier.

Backpack is just as accessible as Cozi but has the versatility and sophistication of the more complex PIMs. This is a great organizational tool for both the tech-savvy and people who just want an organizational program that works. The only downside I see with this is that nonpaying members can’t add files or images and can’t use Backpack’s calendar service. I can understand making people pay to add images and files because of bandwidth concerns. But I’m not so sure how Backpack justifies making its calendar a premium feature when Cozi and other services provide theirs free. That said, even with the basic functionality of to-do list, notes, and reminders, free members will still find this a powerful site. With enough imagination you can use Backpack to organize pretty much anything.


Site of the Week: Pownce

September 11, 2007

A well-designed Web and software-based sharing tool (with a dash of social networking and personalization thrown in), Pownce is not a Twitter clone but rather a true microblog that lets you share comments, files, links, and invitations.

Well-designed interface. Private sharing options. Lightweight desktop option with notification.

No mobile option for posting or notification. No public page of everyone’s posts.


Price As Tested: $0.00 – $20.00 Direct


The idea behind Pownce, a start-up backed by Kevin Rose of digg fame, is to fill the niche that lies somewhere between Internet messaging, blogging, and file sharing. The site goes quite a bit beyond Twitter and its several clones, most importantly by adding file storage and sharing to the basic brief messages that are the common thread running through those sites.


Pownce is both more and less than Twitter: Though it adds file sharing, it lacks Twitter’s public page and users’ ability to post through a mobile phone or PDA. And it’s lighter than typical blogging software: Short posts on Pownce don’t get their own page but are all on a single page, and you don’t get the type of customization you can in a blog or the ability to include HTML.

Another difference from more traditional blogs is that, with Pownce, you can designate posts as visible only to your friends or even to individual Pownce users. You can even create sets of friends for each message to control your audience reach further for each post. So for people who don’t want to go through the process of setting up a blog, want to limit those who read their thoughts, or just don’t have long-winded things to say, Pownce is a good fit. IM is good for short posts, too, but you don’t get the permanence and audience reach that Pownce offers.

Beyond its Web interface, the service offers an installed desktop software version (still in alpha) that takes advantage of Adobe’s new AIR (Adobe Integrated Runtime) technology. AIR, formerly code-named “Apollo” and still in late beta, is basically a cross-platform way to turn Web applications into Internet-connected desktop apps.

At this stage in Pownce’s development, you need to wait for an invitation to sign up—Pownce’s developers are not calling the Web app a beta but just protecting their servers from overload at this early stage in the service’s life. You can either get an invitation from a well-connected friend or put yourself on the waiting list by entering your e-mail address on the Pownce home page. Once you get an invitation, you can sign up, and then you’ll get more invitations to send to your acquaintances, and so on. Signing up involves entering a few simple personal data points and optionally uploading a picture of yourself. You can always go to your Settings page and change any of this information later.

The well-designed, clear Web interface is where you’ll do most of your powncing, especially if you’re not at a PC with the installed software.

You can customize Pownce’s look by choosing a different Theme in your Settings options. The four nicely designed choices should keep you from getting bored with the pastel-blue look of the site, but they hardly rival the options available in blogging services, and you can’t change the appearance of the installed software version. You can filter the types of messages you want to view, through a list box on the right, above your list of messages. This goes well beyond Twitter’s simple choice of choosing posters to follow:

For posting, the default entry box is for a simple message, and surprisingly, there doesn’t seem to be a limit on how many characters you can enter. A limit might be good, to prevent towering posts that block out all those below. When you click on the Link, File, or Event links, the box changes to reveal different entry fields. Link, as you’d expect, adds a line for your URL; File adds a Browse button to locate the file you want to send; and Event adds fields for event title, location, date, and time.

The Link and Event choices aren’t especially interesting: Link gives you a text box into which you enter a link. This produces a nice button on your post that goes to the page in question. The Event choice gives you fields for the event name, place, time, and date. These simply produce a post with bold What, Where, and When entries, and you get reminders on your Pownce home page for events your friends have sent. But there’s nothing anywhere near the capabilities of an Evite or a MyPunchbowl:

To get going with Pownce’s main selling point—the ability to share files—you simply click on the File tab and choose your file from the Browse dialog. Your file size can be up to 10MB for a free account, and if you spring for the $20 per year for a Pro account, a file can be up to 100MB in size. While the file’s uploading, you see a progress bar. When that’s done, the file appears as a button (showing the file’s size) within your note. Visitors to your Pownce stream can press this button to start downloading the file. (Pownce’s makers use Amazon’s S3 Web storage service to make this feature possible.)

A drop-down list just below the note-entry box lets you choose whether to make your post visible to an individual as a private note, to all your “friends,” or to the entire Web-watching world. Unfortunately for the exhibitionist and self-promoting among us, there’s no public stream page in Pownce as there is on sites like Twitter, where everyone can see everyone else’s public posts. In this sense, Pownce serves more as a true microblogging service, in which your posts are public as long as your readers know the URL or can find it through a Web search.

Adding friends is accomplished by clicking the Add Friends link on the left of your page. You get a single search box that will find either user names or actual names that match what you type in there. This page also shows you your friends’ friends, so there’s a six-degrees-of-separation, social-networking kind of thing going on, too. You find someone’s username and click the Add Friend button, but you’re not friends just yet: Until your intended connection accepts your friend request, you’ll be his or her “fan.” Once you’ve accumulated a pile of bona fide friends, you can create sets of them, allowing your messages to be targeted to specific related groups of acquaintances.

All of Pownce’s entry fields have prompting text, as in the Events form, where you have “what’s happening?” and “where?” in addition to the “post a note” that’s there for all the types of entries. Not every service includes these, and I find it a helpful motivator. If there’s just a blank box staring at you, you won’t start entering what you need to as quickly as when you’re explicitly told: “Type this information now!”

During the course of this review, Pownce was updated to include inline video playback from YouTube, Google, Metacafe, Revver, Vimeo and thumbnails from the Zooomr photo-sharing site. When you enter a Link to content from one of these sites, the viewer is automatically displayed. A very cool piece of whiz-bang, this puts Pownce well ahead of yappd, a Twitter clone that touts the ability to embed pictures in posts.

Powncing on the Desktop

Installing the desktop software involves first downloading and installing Adobe AIR, and then doing the same for the Pownce software itself. Both are quite quick and painless procedures. It’s all very tenuous stuff, though, and since AIR is still in beta and the Pownce client is in alpha, your mileage may vary.

You get started with the installed application by logging in just as you would to the Web site. The software client itself is compact and attractive. From this app, you can perform all your Pownce viewing and posting. Account settings and help aren’t available, however, unless you hit the Home button, which just takes you back to your Pownce Web page.

All of my previous notes, files, and invitations were accessible from this client, but I did run into a snag with this software: It wouldn’t let me upload a file. This very beta and partly alpha (the AIR part) software clearly still needs some ironing out.

Get Notified

Unlike some of the other microblogging sites—most notably, Twitter—Pownce offers no mobile option for sending posts from your cell phone. It does, however, send notifications via e-mail for events you designate in Settings. Choices include Pending friend request, Private message received, File received, Event invite received, Reply received, and so on. You probably wouldn’t want to get e-mails for all of this unless you really want to spam yourself.

Finally, the makers of Pownce have recently added a Privacy option, which lets you choose which personal information is visible to the public, including your e-mail address, age, gender, location, blurb, and friend list.

The ability to send notes and links along with files is not unique to Pownce. You can get the same functionality with many sites, apps, or services that make file sharing easier, such as Pando, Tubes, and Windows Live SkyDrive. For invitations, Pownce has a long way to go to catch up with Evite or MyPunchbowl. More collaboration and RSVP tracking are needed for that.

Though the young service impresses already, there are still a couple features I’d like to see. Posting notes via cell phone would seem to make sense for Pownce, at least for plain messages. I’d also love to see a public page à la Twitter, where you could read everyone’s posts. But Pownce is a welcome, well-designed option that’s lighter and quicker to use than many file-sharing or blogging services, and its new inline video player is pretty impressive. If you want less than a blog but more than IM or e-mail to share your remarks and files, Pownce will be to your liking.

<a href=”; target=”new” Visit

Site of the Week: Cozi

August 10, 2007

If you’re looking to make sense of your busy family life, Cozi can help. This free service provides a family calendar, a shopping list, and messaging online or via a downloadable program. It’s low on features, but the ones it has are excellent and easy to use.

Incredibly intuitive interface. Everyday language support affords an easy way to set up your calendar. Creates collage screen savers of your family album. Offers a calling service that reads you your shopping list when you’re on the go.

Lacks the versatility and sophistication found in most other tools of its kind.

Cozi is a free, easy-to-use service that offers a shared family calendar, lists, and messaging to keep your busy family organized. If you’d asked me a few years ago, I would have said the very idea of a shared family organizer program oozes dorkiness. My mom would’ve had as much chance of convincing me to sign in to a family scheduling network as she would of convincing the family to wear matching sweaters and fanny packs on vacation. Imagine my surprise when I checked out‘s family collaboration program and found out it was actually pretty cool.

Cozi is available as either a downloadable or a Web application. The downloadable program can, of course, be used off-line and has a few more features than the Web version, such as a collage screen saver. Both versions are focused on helping families manage the chaos of family life. Cozi geared toward people who value an easy-to-use organizational solution more than the latest, greatest technology. Hence Cozi doesn’t have the advanced features you’d find in a full-fledged Personal Information Manager (PIM)

Getting started is easy: After signing up, you enter the name, e-mail, and cell phone number of every family member using the account and set a family password. Cozi can sync all computers in the household on that account, so any changes made on one computer will be reflected on all of them.

I love how easy everything on Cozi is to use. The service features a blocky but polished and intuitive interface built with AJAX. To set an appointment or event on the calendar, simply click on the calendar, type up your note, and you’re done. Cozi’s cool Everyday Language feature makes it even easier. Instead of having to click through the calendar to find the date, then clicking on the date and writing your note, Everyday Language programming can understand and translate most notes you’re likely to write. For instance, say you want to schedule a doctor’s appointment for August 3. Simply type “Aug 3 Doctor’s Appointment at 4pm” and Cozi posts a note reading “Doctor’s Appointment” on Aug 3 at 4 p.m. in your calendar. Cozi can even work with phrases like “tomorrow” and “next Tuesday.” The service figures out what date tomorrow or next Tuesday is and posts your note accordingly.

The same goes for recurring events. If you want to make sure to remember your weekly PTA meeting, for instance, just type “PTA meeting every Thursday” and Cozi posts a weekly reminder every Thursday in your calendar. This works if you want to schedule an event every day for a given number of days, every other day, every 14 days—you get the picture. It’s very versatile. Every member of your family has his or her own color coding, so you can easily tell which events belong to which family member. You can also send your appointments to your cell phone as a text message to check your schedule on the run.

The Shopping List feature lets you build your grocery list by adding ingredients from a supplied list. The ready-made lists contain only items you’d find in a supermarket, but you can create whatever kind of list you’d like and just type in items yourself and title them however you’d like. You can then send this list as a text message to your cell phone, or you can call a Cozi call center and an automated operator will read your list to you. Cozi’s Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system reads items using a text-to-speech system that mimics actual speech. It can handle most words you throw at it but has difficulty with more obscure words. This read-back feature is handy if you find yourself shopping without your list or want to check if anyone has made any changes since you last checked it.

Cozi can also serve as messaging central for your household. You can send messages to family members’ e-mail accounts or cell phones with the Messages Box on the home page, but only the downloadable version of Cozi allows you to send mass messages to everyone on your Cozi account. The downloadable version also creates a Cozi Collage, which makes a screen saver by creating a collage of your family’s photos. The collage guesses which photos go together and is pretty good a creating coherent collages. These screensavers will also display reminders for upcoming events posted on your calendar.

Cozi’s Outlook integration intelligently synchronizes your work schedule with your family schedule. It adds to Cozi only those appointments that would be relevant to your family. For instance, if you had lunch meeting at noon in your work schedule it wouldn’t show up on your Cozi schedule. However, if you have an overnight flight out of town in your work schedule (or any other appointment outside of work hours), it’s automatically posted to your Cozi calendar. It’s a great way to keep you out of trouble if you’re the type who forgets to tell your spouse ahead of time when you have to work late.

This is the collaboration application to have for organizing your family life. It has simple, intuitive functionality that suits its family target audience perfectly. The thing is, the software is so focused on family use that using it for anything else would be awkward. There are more sophisticated services out there, such as, that can organize your family life, personal life, and business life all in one place. Cozi would be inappropriate for business use, for instance. Still, knocking Cozi for focusing just on families is like slamming the Lifetime network for its lack of testosterone-laden action movies. Cozi caters to its audience’s needs very well. It may not provide the versatility of more advanced organization tools, but I haven’t seen any tool that matches Cozi’s ease of use. Cozi is a strong choice for people looking to bring order to their family life.

Visit Cozi

Site of the Week:

July 9, 2007

Topix is the world’s largest community-news Web site, providing localized content not easily found anywhere else on the Web. You can read, talk about, and even edit the news on Topix pages covering over 360,000 different localities and topics.

There are plenty of places to get your news online, but how many provide news specific to you and your neighborhood? probably won’t tell you about the youngster from the middle school down the block who won a community achievement award. Chances are that isn’t covering the broken traffic light that’s causing gridlock at your town’s main intersection. puts the local news at your fingertips, giving you privileged access to read, discuss, and write about the news that matters to you the most. If you’re especially passionate about your community, you can volunteer to become a local Topix editor and help make your town’s page the best it can be.

Topix began in 2004 as a news aggregation engine but didn’t really take off until the introduction of forums where visitors could talk about the news as well. Founded by the same people who founded Open Directory, Topix adopted Open Directory’s philosophy of relinquishing site control to the users, allowing them to edit, submit, and talk about the news as they please.

The site collects news from 50,000 sources, ranging from traditional news outlets to blogs, and finds stories that specifically pertain to over 32,500 U.S. localities and some international locations. In addition to covering neighborhoods, Topix also has pages devoted to celebrities, sports teams, industries, health & drugs, publicly traded companies, and much more—in fact, there are over 360,000 topics. Becoming a member gives you a mini-profile where you can introduce yourself to the community and list your favorite Topix pages.

Topix customizes the homepage to your neighborhood by deriving your location either from your IP address or the ZIP code you typed into the search box. The resulting personalized homepage lists the most recent local news stories and discussion threads; in addition, there is a dynamically updated row of icons displaying recent Topix-member activities in the forums and news pages.

The news on your personalized page is presented in blog format, with archives you can search by month or through the calendar box on the right-hand side of the page. Once you click on a story, you’re taken to a separate page linking you to its original source. Every once in a while a link shows up dead, but usually you’re taken directly to the original source or given a link to an alternate source reporting on the same topic.

Topix brings you news about your community that you would have to dig deep into your city newspaper (print or online) to find. This is especially useful for smaller towns overshadowed by neighboring big cities. You can also dig deeper into your community by searching for specific topics within the stories index for your town. If you want to branch out beyond your town’s limits, you can search different topics, different cities, or all the articles indexed on Topix in the News Wire. You can also browse through the directories via the Shortcuts link at the top of the page, the Site Map link at the bottom of the page, or visit the directory at, which breaks down the topics covered on the site into categories and subcategories for quick, easy browsing

You Are the Editor

Anyone can contribute to Topix by submitting a URL, writing a story, or e-mailing stories and photos by phone to [zipcode] Topix’s RoboBlogger automatically seeks out relevant news and updates your town’s page as needed. Browsing through local stories is cool, but if you’ve got even a little of the journalist or blogger in you, the real fun of Topix is in being an editor and controlling your own page. To become an editor, you must first become a registered member and then click on the Become an Editor link, included on the right side of the homepage and news blog pages. From there you fill out a form telling Topix why you should be a Topix editor. If Topix decides you’ve got the right stuff, it awards you editor status, and a red drop-down menu featuring your editor tools will appear next to the shortcuts menu the next time you log on. Multiple editors can edit the page of single town or topic, and a single editor can edit many pages. But you have to apply separately for each page you want to edit.

As an editor, you get exclusive access to tools that help you add content to your page. First, you can add stories from the News Wire, which indexes all stories prefiltered by Topix. Next, you can get hot leads through the Tip Line informing you of breaking news happening in your community. Finally, if you come across news that’s worthy of comment in the Topix forums, you have the ability to promote it to a news story. As an editor, you can also survey your page, killing stories irrelevant to your town or topic and editing existing stories as you see fit. But you can’t edit or kill another editor’s stories.

There’s no time commitment required of editors; you can post as much or as little as you want, and RoboBlogger will handle the rest of the news. Topix editors also have access to the Topix Editor’s Blog, where the over 15,000 Topix editors congregate to share tips and tutorials to help each other become better editors.

Though the forums probably made Topix as popular as it is today, they’re not perfect. Specialized, moderated boards can be very powerful tools, but massive boards can also struggle with bouts of intolerant, offensive posts that are hard to limit without resorting to equally unpleasant measures of censorship. Topix says it has algorithms and human monitors in place to weed out content that violates its terms of service, but there’s still plenty of objectionable content. According to Topix, however, over a million posters have posted over 10 million comments in its forums, so it seems that most users enjoy this free-speech free-for-all.

That translates into a lot of great content. Topix has discussion boards dedicated to all its news items and topic pages. You can view the discussion thread for a particular story or view the forums for a particular town or topic. These forums let users start threads relevant to the forum’s topic and discuss it among themselves. Anyone can post on the boards, but registered members’ posts are highlighted in green with an accompanying avatar, so they stand out from the rest. Check out what topics are buzzing by clicking on the Most Popular link in the shortcuts menu. The Most Popular page lists recent news articles that are generating the most discussion in the Topix forums.

Topix provides users with content not easily found anywhere on the Web. The access to local news content and the ability to interact with the news by personalizing it to your interest, discussing it with the Topix community, or editing it yourself makes the site an invaluable news resource. But to take full advantage, you have to become a Topix editor and make sure that your community gets the spotlight it deserves.


Topix puts the power of the media in your hands. It provides you with quality local news content the big players don’t deliver, along with the ability to read, discuss, and edit news pages yourself.

Local news content not easily found elsewhere. Ability to become a Topix editor and manage your hometown page. Lots of usually relevant content. Lets you chat about the news with neighbors and other members of the Topix community.

Forums peppered with objectionable content.


Site of the Week: All Things Digital

April 30, 2007

Walt Mossberg’s new digital site offers a lot of potential for engaging content, but it’s still suffering growing pains.

Good variety of engaging and informative columns. Expert guest columnists. Nice site design.

Much of site’s content is recycled from print. Single-sponsor advertising. Some layout flaws.

The Wall Street Journal

By Jim Louderback

The Wall Street Journal‘s Walt Mossberg is often called the “the Pope” of the tech press, and with the new All Things Digital site (, he’s aiming to conquer the Web as well. Mossberg, along with conference partner Kara Swisher, reviewing partner Katherine Boehert, ex-San Jose Mercury reporter senior editor John Paczkowski, and financial backing from The Wall Street Journal, seems to be aiming to create the tech version of The Huffington Post.

Built with WordPress, the elegantly designed site delivers a combination of commentary, news analysis, product reviews, and video. Instead of following the FIFO model of a traditional blog or the multistory approach of other content sites like CNN and The Wall Street Journal, the site plays up its editors’ reputation and personality. It delivers a mix of new and old features that appeal to Mossberg fans and to attendees of Swisher and Mossberg’s popular and exclusive executive conference, which shares the site’s name.

Those unfamiliar with Mossberg, however, will be somewhat confused upon first arriving. The site doesn’t clearly state its mission up front; it offers only the cryptic statement, “It’s tech-tastic.” If you don’t know Mossberg or Swisher, the site seems to be saying, then there’s no reason for you to stick around. You’ll have to root around down in the footer to discover a longer description of the site, which leads to the About Us page.

Those who do stick around will be pleased by the mix of content. Swisher has revived her “Boomtown” column, which ran in the print version of the WSJ during the tech-boom years. It’s a tad overwritten and echoes the “Open Letter” format that Stewart Alsop used so effectively in the Agenda days, but it’s a fun read, and I’m glad it’s back.

Another greatest hit from the days of the Web bubble, “Good Morning Silicon Valley,” has sort of returned via Paczkowski, one of its writers. His “Digital Daily” section is essentially a blog, featuring snappy and snarky commentary on the news of the day, along with a daily video that hopefully will improve over time.

So far, Mossberg’s contributions are limited to Web versions of his WSJ stories and a somewhat Spartan blog, called Mossblog (a great name—but since he doesn’t own the URL, it resolves to a subdomain of His posting about Apple’s “craplet video,” which debuted a few days after his column, bemoaning all the bloated apps that show up on today’s Microsoft Windows machines, was a little too self-serving and congratulatory. But his latest post, taking the Mac faithful to task for freaking out over the Leopard delay, was clear, pointed, and right-on.

The site also features prominent guest bloggers, much as The Huffington Post does. The first, by AMD CEO Hector Ruiz, talks about how Metcalfe’s Law ought to be a stronger guiding principle in semiconductor design than Moore’s Law. It’s not the easiest read, and it mostly parrots AMD’s company line, but it’s worthwhile nonetheless. Mossberg and Swisher promise that these guest blogs will be written by the guests themselves—not by PR professionals. That’s a breath of fresh air.

Visit the site

Site of the Week: LinkedIn

April 23, 2007

LinkedIn is by far the most developed business- and career-oriented networking site and service out there; it’s the way millions of career-minded people will find their next jobs.

An efficient way to connect with an enormous reservoir of professionals from just about every industry. Easy-to-use search and filtering features. Lets you create a detailed professional profile others can search.

Dense, busy interface. May encounter promiscuous linkers.

LinkedIn Corporation

The Web is teeming with social-networking sites that emphasize the “social,” but what if you’re a business-minded individual more interested in the networking end? Where do you go? The answer: LinkedIn. Since PC Mag‘s first serious look at the beta three years ago, the site has swelled to over 9 million registered users and become the most feature-rich business networking service of its kind.

I’m tempted to say it’s not only feature-rich, but feature-heavy. The sheer mass of capabilities takes a toll on the site’s looks—the interface is busy in the extreme. That all should change soon, however, as the company says a design refresh is coming in the next month or two. Though I’ve seen only one page of the redesign (it’s in our slideshow)

The service helps you make the most of your current professional relationships by letting you link with your closest work contacts, and that, in turn, can give you access to their contacts. I say “can” because you don’t automatically get to connect with everyone under the sun; part of the beauty and tantalizing nature of LinkedIn is that you get to see more than you directly have access to. While you can see the basics about people who are linked to one of your direct connections, you must first get an introduction, a referral from your direct connection vouching for you, before you can connect with them directly.

When you register, the site uses the information you enter to start your personal profile —basically an expanded curriculum vitae. You can (and should) add to it, though; you do this via a form that combines question-and-answer format with free-text entry. The quality of your profile heavily influences the results you get. The more fleshed-out it is the better, since members can search the site for others who have similar backgrounds, attended particular schools, have certain professional experience, worked at a particular company, and more. The rich detail that profiles can contain increases the chances of a search turning up people who can provide expertise and even career opportunities, often in industries far different from yours.

New LinkedIn Features

I find the features added since we last reviewed LinkedIn among the site’s most appealing and powerful. The Jobs/Hiring section powered by SimplyHired tops my list. Tools you access via the Find jobs tab in this section let you search for opportunities based on keywords that describe the type of position you want, and you can narrow your search geographically. Positions available through people in your network appear first in the results. Those who have jobs use the site to search for candidates or advertise openings (one of the main revenue streams for LinkedIn).

Another recently added (and highly useful) capability, LinkedIn Answers, gives you a great way to build your network without really trying. Questions you post go directly to the inboxes of contacts within three degrees of connection to you (you know someone who knows someone who knows them), and others can find your questions on the Answers pages. The tool should let you get valuable input without all the chatter and garbage that collects on sites such as Yahoo! Answers. I recently asked what PC Magazine‘s next Site of the Week should be, and within an hour, I had 4 solid responses; in three days, I’d received 13.

Another new feature, available within LinkedIn and from toolbars for Internet Explorer and Firefox, lets you upload your e-mail contacts from AOL, Gmail, Hotmail, and Yahoo! Mail. A Microsoft Outlook toolbar lets you upload its contacts also. For now, users of other software, such as the Palm desktop OS, will have to export their contacts to a webmail service, then upload them to LinkedIn. After I shipped 752 contacts to LinkedIn, the service told me that 259 of them were already using it. Not bad.

The new Reference search, which you reach via the People menu tab,) gives you a good way to find out about potential employees, employers, and business partners. Enter a company name and the years a person worked there, and you’ll be able to cross-reference this information with matches from your own network.

LinkedIn Lowlifes

Unfortunately, the free and open nature of LinkedIn, along with its search capabilities, can lead to abuse by what some call promiscuous linkers, people who compete to see who can build the largest networks. PC Magazine ran a column about the problem two years ago, in fact. Promiscuous linkers don’t really know you or even strongly connect to you with a single degree of separation, but they try to flatter and cajole you into adding them as direct connections, expanding their networks.

By failing to question whether warm and cold callers have strong connections to them, many kind-hearted members have inadvertently fostered this problem. Some shady operators even pretend they’ve met you or have some other connection. LinkedIn has built defenses against this sort of thing—for example, you can request that a mutual connection send a referral to you—but they still depend on honesty.

LinkedIn lets you easily report people you believe to be abusing it; the service will flag them and can limit their ability to send link invitations. Those squeamish about declining an invitation out-right can click on Decide later, so the other party won’t receive a notification of your rejection. And, of course, you can remove a connection if you think you made a mistake; the person won’t get a notification of that.

Various Versions

The free version of LinkedIn gives you an unlimited number of invitations from others to connect; you are also able to have five open invitations sent out at a time. You can receive InMails as a free member as well. InMails, as the name might suggest, are internal e-mails sent by premium members as a way to connect to any type of LinkedIn member directly.

There are also several LinkedIn premium packages: Business, for $19.95 monthly or $199.50 yearly; Business Plus, at $50 or $500; and Pro, which costs $200 or $2,000. The key differences among the levels are how much ability you get to perform searches beyond your own connections and network, and the InMail feature, which lets you directly contact other users from within the service. You can also purchase some features à la carte—if, for example, you want to contact someone not in your network, you can buy an individual InMail for $10.

Business class members can send 3 InMails per month, Plus users get up to 10, and Pro users up to 50. Similarly, premium accounts give you a wider net for search results as well. For instance, Business users are provided 100 results beyond those in their own network when they perform a search for something (names are not included, just a profile summary, you’d then use an InMail to make direct contact). Plus users get 150 additional results and Pro users 200.

Other important premium features include one-business-day customer support, unlimited reference searches, and OpenLink Network membership. These features would be of most benefit to hiring managers, recruiters, or companies doing a lot of hiring.

Does LinkedIn have competition? Yes and no. Ryze shares the ability to network with others, but has a much smaller user base (around 300,000) and fewer other options. Career Builder, HotJobs, and Monster compete in job-search capabilities, but lack the networking features. The major search engines compete on general searches for people, but the results lack the detail you get from LinkedIn. No other site or service provides everything under one umbrella.

Visit LinkedIn
See slide show

LinkedIn (beta)

More of a well-heeled social club than a friendly free-for-all, LinkedIn is the most exclusive site we reviewed. This professional-oriented site is also the least likely to bother members with trivia. Like Ryze, LinkedIn targets business users, but at a higher level—meaning upper-echelon managers and executives.

A quick search of LinkedIn’s 40,000 members revealed over 700 VPs, over 140 CTOs, and over 500 CEOs; such stats might cause executive recruiters—or job seekers—to prick up their ears. If LinkedIn can maintain its cachet of exclusivity, it’ll be an impressive way to make important contacts for those in senior positions.

Mere mortals, however, aren’t likely to see this high-level A-list—at least not without a custom invitation from on high. LinkedIn’s stringent privacy policy is appropriate to its professional bent. The site does a good job of protecting its clients from public view, though you can opt to allow other users to contact you directly.

A more common option for beginners is to search for current and former colleagues and contacts already linked up to LinkedIn. A handy feature lets you compare your Outlook address book against a list of current members, expediting the process of inviting people from the outside and building your business network from the ground up.

LinkedIn has a no-nonsense, all-business user interface. There are no forums, specific listings for job opportunities, or extra content here (as with Ryze and beyond statistics about your network, including percentages of users who fall into categories (like job seekers and hiring managers) and distribution by industry and geography.

LinkedIn gives you excellent control of searches by name, title, geography, and industry type. You’ll see only people in your network (those you’re linked to by a chain of friends), however, so it’s important that you cultivate connections. Once you locate a source, you can approach contacts about a job or other opportunity via a request page. In this beta version, users can have three outstanding requests at a time.

The governing principle is that persons of influence will be selective about passing along references, which are handed off to other contacts for approval. For three degrees of separation, you need two people to approve your request to approach a potential employer with a rèsumè, for example. When you sign in to your account, you’re informed of outstanding reference requests, which you can accept or reject. Should a request be rejected, the person who asked for it is never informed who rejected it. This decreases the chances that inappropriate requests will be simply rubber-stamped.

While there are no profile photos for LinkedIn members, testimonials in the form of endorsements from other members can add weight to user profiles. According to LinkedIn, such endorsements significantly increase the odds of making successful contacts. Favorite contacts can be stored in an address book, though unlike the other services, LinkedIn doesn’t have an extensive messaging system.

LinkedIn could change the way executive recruiting is conducted. As a general-purpose job site, it can undoubtedly work. And if you’re fortunate enough to gain entrèe to its elite client list, it’s a great resource for tapping venture capital, senior management, and technical expertise.

Site of the Week: Terapad

March 30, 2007

Terapad isn’t the most advanced free blogging tool out there, but its business-minded features and 2GB of free storage might make it attractive to entrepreneurial bloggers.

Easy-to-use tools. E-commerce features. 2GB free storage. Static page editing. Good features for editing posts. Image galleries.

Free accounts display ads. Limited customization options. Unintuitive site navigation.

SiteJourney, Ltd.

Price As Tested: $0.00 – $5.00 Direct’s tagline, “Beyond Blogging,” is fairly apropos. Many other free online apps, such as Blogger, Vox, LiveJournal, and, put their focus strictly on the act of blogging—other features are added only to enhance that experience. With Terapad, blogging is just one of its tools, which are aimed at helping you quickly and easily create an online presence. Depending on what you’re looking for, Terapad’s broader, more business-minded focus will prove either a blessing or a curse.

After a visit to the home page, however, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Terapad was primarily a blogging service. Like a traditional blog site, it lists links to blogs that have been created using the service, a searchable list of post tags, and links to image galleries. On a whole, the layout indicates a service that’s attempting to build a community, something that’s becoming more and more popular among free blogging services. It’s nothing like the social-networking features offered by the Vox or LiveJournal sites, but it is a quick and easy way to discover how others use the platform. Under Terapad’s surface is a good selection of tools that might help your very small business boost its online presence. More on these later.

Getting Started

A small link on the home page prompts you to sign up for an account. Strangely, there’s no log-in on the home page for current users—a big oversight. I found myself repeatedly checking my Terapad confirmation e-mail and using the link whenever I wanted to log back in. The account-creation process will prove a familiar experience for all of those who have tried this kind of service: You pick a site address (for example,, a site name, an optional tagline, and one of six templates (a pretty paltry selection, though a Terapad representative told me that the number will increase to a far more respectable 26 on April 15). The whole process is simple and takes only a few minutes.

The sign-up process also includes a couple of unique options, including the type of site (Both Blog and Pages, Blog Only, Web Pages Only), and a list of optional site features, including News/Blog, Image Gallery, Forums, Shop, Events, and Careers. It’s through these optional features that Terapad’s “Beyond Blogging” concept comes into play, making Terapad as much a user-friendly small-business tool as it is a blogging platform.

The Blogging
Once you’ve created an account, you’re greeted with an intro page, featuring the word “Welcome!” next to a big smiley face. Terapad doesn’t have the sort of step-by-step instruction offered by Blogger and Vox, but it does give a few handy tips for getting started.

The top of the Terapad editor is lined with 15 tabs (fewer if you’ve deactivated features), with options such as Editors, Pages, and Forums. Terapad makes it pretty clear that blogging is not the site’s main concern, by hiding the “Add Blog Post” feature halfway down the Blog page, which can be found by clicking on the Blog tab, located on the second row of tabs.

The WYSIWYG post editor is a pretty straightforward proposition, with a good number of options, including a spell-checker, a handful of font and style options, and a feature that lets you insert basic tables. With Content Templates you can position the post’s text in three basic formats: Image and Title; Two Columns (of text); and Text and Table. Clicking Source allows you to edit the post’s HTML. Above the text editor are fields for assigning a post category and setting a date for the post to be published later. Below is a field for Tags and an option to make the post Sticky, keeping it static at the top of your blog, even as newer content is posted. The posting process is simple, and should be familiar to anyone who has ever used a word processor.

The layout options are limited unless you know CSS (if you do, you can edit at will). The layout of all of the current templates is the same—the key difference in each are the colors and graphics. No matter what you do with those variations, however, it’s going to be pretty clear to anyone who knows the service that you’re using a default Terapad template. That’s not the best way to differentiate your blog or small business. Among the free blog services that I’ve looked at, Terapad’s templates rank well below those offered by Vox and The links that appear in your sidebar depend on the options that you clicked when starting out, though they can be changed at any time.

You can also integrate your site with a handful of third-party widgets, from companies such as Flickr, Google, and Meebo. The selection is a bit lacking at the moment, but Terapad says it’s in the process of adding more.

The only other customization option on the Layout page is the Sidebar Container option, allowing users to create basic text fields, which, along with your blogroll and widgets, appear below the large Google AdSense field. This means that unless your readers scroll down (sometimes way down) they might never see these widgets. Though the Google AdSense field is unfortunate, at least Terapad doesn’t force a big banner across the top of the page, as Blogger and LiveJournal do. There are also no obligatory social-networking portals on the side of the page—if you’re looking to hook up with fellow bloggers, LiveJournal and Vox are your best options.

The Google AdSense field can be deactivated only if you sign up for a premium account at $5 a month. That fee also gives you a whopping 20GB of storage space, though the rather impressive free amount of 2GB per blog will likely prove more than sufficient for most casual users.

Terapad for Business

Terapad has far and away the most small-business–minded features of any of the free blogging services that I’ve looked at. Given what initially seems to be a focus on the site’s blogging feature, I was surprised to learn from the company’s managing director, Stephan Tual, that Terapad actually began life as a CMS tool. The focus on blogging is new. Users and the press expressed interest in Terapad’s blogging abilities, so the company has shifted focus accordingly.

Its newfound emphasis on blogging aside, the site still seems aimed at helping you quickly create a full-fledged online presence. As with, you can build static pages that look aesthetically similar to the main blog. These pages, which are accessible through your site’s sidebar, are good for creating About pages or other similar informational resources for your site. You can also make them the focus of your site, eliminating the blogging feature altogether.

The Online Shop option, which lets you sell products through a PayPal store, makes Terapad an intriguing option for those with small retail ambitions: artists, perhaps, or eBay sellers. Terapad can even help you staff up, via a Careers option that lets you post your company’s open positions. For the time being, both these options are available only via your site, though Terapad has plans to create a large searchable database of all of the For Sale and Help Wanted listings. The tools are still pretty basic. If you’re looking for serious e-commerce tools, you’ll want to buy a dedicated app, or, even more likely, hire a Web designer to set up a site for you.

If you want to keep your small business or community organized, you can use Terapad’s events calendar, and you can stay in touch via a simple forum in addition to the standard post comments. There’s also an image gallery, which should help you use up some of that free storage. A simple stats page will help you keep track of your site’s performance. Though not as detailed as those offered by, the feature is a worthwhile bonus.

These features, along with its straightforward blogging solution, make Terapad worth a look for anyone who wants a quick and easy app for building an online business presence. There are certainly far more advanced SMB solutions around, but they’ll probably cost you more time and money. As far as free blogging services go, Terapad is good, but it lacks many of the specialized solutions many users want, such as the social networking. Small-scale entrepreneurs will appreciate the site’s unique combination of semipro tools and its generous free storage. Those looking to blog for blogging’s sake should take a look at Vox or

Visit the site
See the slide show


July 21, 2006

If you’re a book lover and not too secretive, visit as fast as you can.

Keeps a convenient online catalog of book collections. Lets you browse other collections. Connects you with other book lovers. Gives book recommendations.

You can’t expose your online book catalog solely to specific friends and family—it’s either completely private or completely public.


Notes: Free for up to 200 cataloged books; for more than 200 books, shell out either $10 per year or $25 for a lifetime membership.


LibraryThing is a social network of bibliophiles. That’s right. Bibliophiles. Despite its reputation as a frivolous fad among teenagers and twentysomethings, online social networking has the power to serve almost anyone—including people with a passion for books.

Created by Chicagoan Tim Spaulding, this grass-roots site follows in the footsteps of Flickr and Just as Flickr built an online community around digital photos and fashioned a similar social network around browser “favorites,” LibraryThing connects people through their book collections.

To date, more than 39,000 people have cataloged their personal book collections on the site, posting information about more than 2.8 million titles. Some use it to keep tabs on their vast home libraries. Others are merely interested in, well, showing off. But first and foremost it puts you in touch with people who share your tastes. You can browse each other’s collections, trade recommendations, and even forge relationships. It isn’t called social networking for nothing.

At the very least, you should spend a few minutes perusing this vast catalog of book titles. Search on your favorite authors—just to see how popular they are. Track down reviews people have posted about your favorite novels. Find out what else they’re reading. Check out the “Zeitgeist” page, where you’ll find the top 25 most popular titles, the top 75 authors, and more.

I particularly enjoy browsing via “tags.” As with Flickr and, LibraryThing encourages its users to tag their books with keywords, a process that essentially sorts titles into ad hoc subcategories. Tags associated with Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince include “adventure,” “british,” and “children,” and if you click on “adventure,” you’ll find a list of other titles carrying the same tag. The Zeitgeist page includes a list of the 75 most popular tags, letting you peruse everything from “historical fiction” to “young adult” books. I could spend hours on the Zeitgeist page alone.

Of course, LibraryThing is even more useful if you post your book collection, and the process is wonderfully easy. Once you key in a username and password—nothing more—you can immediately start cataloging. Simply enter a title or an author, and the site searches and major library sites for matching books. Then, with another click, you can add a book to your list. Within 15 seconds of first visiting LibraryThing, I’d added the first three titles to my catalog. If you’ve got a rare or unusual book that LibraryThing can’t find, you can add it manually.

Assuming the book is found (and most will be), each time you add a book, LibraryThing automatically posts an image of its front cover, its date of publication, its ISBN (International Standard Book Number), a list of other editions, and even where you can buy new copies online. If you like, you can add other information, including tags, a star rating, a Dewey decimal number, the date you acquired the book, the day you started reading, and the date you finished. You can add comments. You even can post a review.

At the very least, this gives you a detailed record of your personal library. That’s a good thing to have on hand, whether you’re giving book recommendations to a friend or trying to remember if there’s a particular title buried somewhere in your collection. I recently bought a copy of Nicholas Pileggi’s Wiseguy, not realizing I already owned it. That’s a common problem among big book collectors, and LibraryThing solves it. The site even lets you browse your titles using only their cover images, as if each was propped up on a vast bookshelf.

Better still, posting your collection proves to be an even easier way to leverage that vast LibraryThing network. The site automatically generates book recommendations based on the titles you own. It gives you a list of other users who own the same books. Perhaps my favorite thing about LibraryThing is that you can track down someone who shares your tastes and request a direct recommendation or ask them if a book you’re thinking of buying is any good. You can easily trade comments with users, and you may even develop running relationships. Why not meet up with someone and trade books? Spaulding claims his brother uses the site to meet women.

Don’t want others to see your book collection? No problem. If you like, you can make your catalog completely private. Unfortunately, you can’t expose your collection to specified individuals. I’m hoping this semiprivate option will be added in the future.

Users aren’t afforded a full-fledged Web presence on LibraryThing—you can’t really customize the look and feel of your profile, for instance—but the site does let you sign up for RSS feeds that alert you to newly added books and reviews. How much does it cost? You can browse for free, and you can post up to 200 books for free. Beyond that, you have to pay either $10 for a yearly membership or $25 for a lifetime account.

Yes, LibraryThing has much the same appeal as Gen Y sites like MySpace and FaceBook. In letting you post your book collection for all the world to see, it’s a means of connecting with other people—and a way of feeding your vanity. If you’re not into books, you may not see it that way, but trust me, book lovers are very vain when it comes to their books. On the other hand, there’s a more civilized side to LibraryThing: Not only do you have the option to keep your collection private, but the site also has a very practical purpose of providing book recommendations. For a book lover, nothing’s more practical than that.