In December 2008, Richard Savoie, an electrical engineer and avid snowboarder, was getting fed up with his ski-lift rides—and online forums. To ride the lifts, snowboarders sit sideways and unhook the rear boot so that the board hangs only from the front foot, thereby fatiguing the foot. Savoie wanted to make a magnetic binding system to link the dangling board to the rear boot, but he couldn’t coax a strong enough field from some rare earth magnets he owned. While looking for help online, he found that general engineering forums were “populated by students trying to get answers for their homework,” says Savoie.
The binding system wasn’t the only offbeat project for which Savoie wanted ideas or some esoteric tool. “I was often trying to create champagne projects on a beer budget,” he says. So he set up a group called Engineers Looking for Stuff! (ELFS!) on the professional networking site LinkedIn, “specifically tuned to people looking for ideas, tips, or resources to finish a project or prototype.” The group now has over 2000 members (and yes, Savoie got an answer to his magnet problem).
Niche social networks don’t aspire to rival Facebook, the juggernaut of the social networking universe. Instead, the value of these small-scale forums lies in connecting people who share professional concerns and specialized interests. They provide a platform for users to brainstorm technical issues, share expertise, keep up with industry trends, forge partnerships, get career advice, and find jobs. Another reason for these sites stems from a desire to keep family-and-friend networks separate from those centered around professional interests.
“We shy away from using the words ‘social networking,’ ” says John Day, the membership director of student activities and group management for IEEE’s memberNet, a networking site for electrical engineers. “We prefer the term ‘knowledge networks.’ ”
As befits their specialized nature, there are a quite a few of these networks, each catering to a different technical audience. The just-launched Power Panel Community website caters to engineers who design, build, and maintain oil, gas, petrochemical, and other industrial facilities; in its first three weeks it gained over 150 members. Element14 is targeted to design engineers. LinkedIn has several groups catering to narrow niches such as medical devices or graphical user interfaces. There are open-source sites such as Arduino (a design and development platform) and CodePlex (Microsoft’s free open-source project hosting site) where engineers can share projects. And some, like ResearchGate and LabRoots, offer scientists and engineers space for general networking and sharing research.
LabRoots comes closest to a conventional social networking platform, with data-mining software that digs through a user’s profile to bring them relevant content. When CEO Greg Cruikshank launched the site in 2008, he wanted to combine social networks, professional networks, and online message boards. “Facebook is great for social interactions,” Cruikshank says. “LinkedIn is more of an advertising portal for professionals. And discussion boards have no profiles or data-mining technology.” LabRoots features live news feeds, video posting, research paper access and review, and even a Facebook-esque “wall.” Of its 400 000 registered members, 76 000 are engineers.
It’s clear to Savoie that sites like his ELFS! fill many engineers’ needs. “I’ve gotten many thank-you e-mails from people who have established working relationships through the group. I'm not aware of a Fortune 500 being forged through the ranks quite yet, but given enough time and a couple thousand more members, who knows?”
About the Author
Prachi Patel is a contributing editor to IEEE Spectrum; she wrote “ Where the Jobs Are” for our September 2012 issue. Patel, who holds a master’s in electrical engineering from Princeton, has written for Discover and the websites of Scientific American and Technology Review. You can also hear her on Spectrum Radio and Public Radio International’s “Living on Earth.”